(Let me take a moment to remind you I am not a psych professional. I spent three years working in a psychiatric clinic and received tons of training but that does not a psychiatrist or psychologist make. Everything I’m sharing in these articles is based on very superficial theories about human behavior that I have found really useful in my work as an actor.) 

We left off with a chapter concerning a character’s “fatal flaw.” If we put that flaw at the very center of our character’s personality, we can then start employing ego defense mechanisms to protect it. Remember, ego works to serve us in ways that benefit the long term. It doesn’t matter if those benefits are acceptable to society or not. The id wants what it wants and the ego decides how best to get it. The poor ego has to carry a lot of weight, doesn’t it? And it does not like being told it’s going about things in the wrong way, whether the criticism is coming from the personality’s superego or from someone else. Well, the ego has a quiver full of weapons it can use to offset any efforts to thwart it’s course.

Much of the time, ego defense mechanisms exist at one of the more inner layers of personality. People will employ them without even realizing it. But the other people around them might easily recognize defensive behavior. They’ll sense that “something just isn’t right” about what they’re hearing or seeing from the mechanism’s employer.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite, denial. Good old denial. We know it when we see it and we all do it ourselves from time to time. This kind of denial isn’t about lying to others to cover up guilt. It’s about lying to oneself and totally buying into the lie. Let’s take another look at Shakespeare’s Richard III, this time the character of Lady Anne. In one of the play’s most well known scenes, Anne confronts Richard during a funeral procession. She knows he murdered her husband and father-in-law and she rips into him with a stream of invectives that could only come from a Shakespeare play. Yet, within just a few minutes, she is stopping Richard from committing suicide and fully agreeing to align herself with him. What the…? Why would she do that? What is her ego in search of that would drive her in such a counterintuitive way? In a historical context, to be a woman of royalty, widowed and essentially alone and powerless in the world, was a dangerous predicament. It’s understandable that Anne would search for effective protection under the circumstances. The task of that search falls to her ego. But Anne must know, on at least some level, that hooking up with Richard  cannot possibly be in her best, long term interests. He’s a murdering, sleazy liar and total creep. No good can come from such a relationship.

Enter denial, stage right. Her ego cloaks itself in denial and sends Anne a message: “Well, those murders were simply out of necessity. That’s just the way of the world. And besides, just look at him. It must be awful to live with those deformities. The poor man. Nobody to love him. Come on, Anne. Are you made of stone?” For a modern day woman that kind of inner monologue would be impossible. But for Anne, in her time and circumstances, Richard is better than no one. There you go. Denial overrides common sense but Anne’s ego is feeling all warm and fuzzy because, by using denial without even being aware of it, she has convinced herself that Richard is really an okay guy.

This is all about looking at a specific behavior, then understanding it because you have some sense of how and why people behave the way they do. The actor’s personality must give way to the character’s personality completely. For an actor playing Anne, knowing and internalizing the circumstances in their historical context will make Anne’s choice more believable for the actor. Then, her subtext can be that Anne is in denial. Once the actor believes the whole inner package enough, it will find it’s way into her performance, she will project it, the audience will read the denial and buy the choice.