In my Intro to Theater Arts class, we did an exercise on villains. Everyone had to choose an especially wicked villain from a movie or book. I told them to chose someone who would be particularly unpleasant to be with in real life.
Then, they had to pretend that they had to act the part of this villain in a play or movie. How would they approach the role?
The goal was to try to empathize and put oneself into the shoes of a villain.
Strange, you say? Not really. In acting, one of the basic rules is not to judge a character. That is also a difficult rule because we bring with us much prejudice concerning people we do not like.
The exercise involved asking “why”. Why is that person like that? The goal was to become compassionate towards that evil character – to empathize with them – in order to bring their character to life in a realistic manner.
And so my students delved into the background of these characters, and if the background wasn’t available, they created one which would correctly justify the person’s behavior.
One person chose Cinderella’s step-mother. Seemed silly. But, it was quite instructive since we all know the story so well. What could possibly justify her nastiness towards her sweet step-daughter.
How about love? Cinderella’s father, perhaps, favored Cinderella and cherished her so much because she reminded her of his first wife. He never showed enough love and care for his second wife who felt like she was taking a backseat. Love jealousy angle – very powerful – and justified because the wife-husband relationship should be first.
Another was that the step-mom only married for money and didn’t love him. Perhaps she was orphaned as a child, or had a harsh life, so much so that would do anything for her girls. Perhaps her first husband left her abandoned or tricked her into thinking he had royal blood, which embittered her and drove her to her obsession for getting her girls married to the prince. We could go on all day with this.
The point is, keep asking ‘why’ until the action is sufficiently justified. Then remember those feelings when you bring the character to life.
How about writing? Well, I hope we can all see the parallels. When we create the villains or antagonists or characters who do unspeakable things, are we filling in the the appropriate back story which answers the questions ‘why’? Actions must be justified or a character will simply come across as unbelievable.
What applies to the stage is equally applicable to the page.