I love me a grey character. What I mean by that is I love a character who really makes you weigh how you feel about them. The hero who isn’t the nicest person or doesn’t always do the noble thing. The villain who stirs our pity with a relate-able motive. Some people might call these characters complicated. But the word complicated implies something difficult to understand. I think of these characters as human. They are doing what they feel they have to do. For my tastes, the hero would be as flawed as the villain and the villain would be as right in his argument as the hero. Because then you have a match between two worthy opponents, a match either side could potentially win. Every now and again, you get lucky enough to meet characters who are written like this on the page. These are scripts that I consider to be virtually actor-proof. You could cast almost anyone and as long as they commit to saying the lines, the story will still be compelling. But more often than not you have to do what you can to try to blur the edges.
Obviously one of the places where you can work to balance out a character is in the casting. Casting against type can be a great way to amp up the humanity of your characters. The caveat here is that you don’t want to cast some who is completely wrong for the part. But there’s often a wider range of actors who could do the role successfully than we consider. Do a quick analysis – what one thing must the character have in order for the story to be believable and what one thing is glaringly absent from the character as it’s written? Does the character really have to be a certain race? A certain gender? A certain age? Especially when you’re working on new work, these “givens” can be much more flexible (and thereby become more interesting) if we allow them to. I think the point where an actor/character intersection becomes the most interesting is when you can find someone who understands (and can deliver) on the one thing you need, but who lives in the world of the one thing that the character is lacking.
Another point where characters can be greyed up is in their interpretation. If we’re working on a script that we can’t change, we don’t have the option of adjusting the arguments to be more balanced. But we can shape the behaviors and influence the motivations in and around the text of the script. We don’t react to events, we react to what we believe about events. Which is to say, it’s not the act, but the context of the act that shapes how we feel about it. As an act, we can agree that killing someone is generally perceived as wrong. But if we believe that someone was killed by accident or in self-defense, how we feel about the killer can shift considerably. As an act, promoting someone might be seen as a nice thing to do. But if one person is promoted in order to smite someone else, suddenly the promotion isn’t as generous an act as it was before. Even if we don’t agree with why someone has done something, knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing goes a long way toward making them feel more human.
First and foremost, we want our characters to be honest and we want the story to make sense. But that’s really the bare minimum. Once that requirement has met, we want to be interested. And when we look around, real life is chock-full of interesting. Things are rarely, if ever, purely black and white. Who is a hero and who is a villain is a constantly shifting landscape. To some degree, we are always a bit of both. Even the “right” answer to any problem leaves a trail of pros and cons in its wake. We own it to ourselves to reflect that in our work.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.