This is not about Dr. Phil, despite how much of an admirer of his work you may be.
You ever seen one of those villains in a movie that cackles with glee, rubbing their hands together at the downfall of the heroes? Just being a bit of a dick?
The thing is, people are dicks all the time, but only super rarely do they wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “You know, it’s Tuesday: I’m going to be a dick today.”
If we start from there, it gives us our first hint on how to make our characters more real. Start with them being human, and having human drivers. People are “evil” or “good” because they want to achieve a set of outcomes that we perceive — through our own lens of morality — to be good or evil. Hitler? Giant dick, right, I know. But he didn’t wake up wanting to be a dick: he wanted to change the world and put Germany at the top.
When I write my stories, I start with the people. I need a motley cast of people, good and evil and the run in between, to tell the story with. They’re the stars of the show, and they need to have motivations for getting up in the morning. Those motivations need to be real. I try and start with my characters wanting to do the right thing, whatever that might mean for them. In Night’s Favour, Val’s idea of the right thing is no more or less advanced than putting one foot in front of the other, going through the motions. He drinks himself to sleep, lives on cheap take-out, and has just one friend. Elsie’s view of the right thing is to save her daughter’s life, and in the process change the world with a revolutionary new medicine.
Which one of them is good, and which one is evil?
The consequences of their actions and how we interpret them makes them believable. Val’s just an ordinary guy who gets the chance to be less ordinary, to change it all. If you were him, what would you do? Elsie’s needs for her daughter trump all others. If you had a daughter who was dying, is there anything you wouldn’t do for her?
Good and evil is subjective, but it’s the motivations that make people in stories real. They become our heroes and villains, our saints and sinners, because of how we see them. We relate to them because, on some level… Well, we understand where they’re coming from.