When I was teaching acting to undergraduates I sometimes had in-depth conversations with them about their characters. Although there are many kinds of acting, including the purely physical and representative, there are some that really like to roll their sleeves up and get to grips with objectives, with motivation, with all the things that makes humans do what they do.
“So why do you think your character does that awful thing?”
“Because they’re mad.”
“No such thing, try again.”
“Because they’re evil?”
“No such thing, try again”
How on earth could I claim that there was no such thing as madness and evil? Do I know better than thousands of years of moral philosophy and psychological research?
The truth is that when we consider characters in our creative work we tend to naturally cast a critical eye over them from our own point of view. We judge them and put them into story frameworks that clearly state what side we take and – perhaps more importantly – which side we want our readers or audience to take. This is entirely the wrong way to look at it if we want to create psychologically real characters.
Think about it from their point of view. Think about it from anyone’s point of view that has been morally judged by society or history. Did Napoleon consider himself mad despite having some interesting and fantastical mentors? Did Hitler wake up with a metaphorical moustache twiddle and think what evil can I wreak today? No, they were both convinced they were being guided by a higher purpose to change the world. Does the homeless alcoholic shouting at the pigeons in the park think golly, I really am mad as a hatstand aren’t I? No, he just wants back the shrink ray they stole off him (or something). How hard have you worked to justify the bad things you’ve done over the years? I imagine you’ve rationalised many of them to the point you don’t even think about them anymore.
Each and every story we tell creates characters that have their own story to tell and they will tell it from their point of view. They are motivated by similar internal and external factors that drive all of us, albeit to a different conclusion. Does that make them wrong? Probably yes in most of our eyes, but in their eyes? No, quite the opposite.
Hence, from the point of view of your character which is the only one that counts when you are writing or performing them, there is no evil, no madness, only motivation and goals. Find that, find the character and lose convenient labels that will limit your depth.