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Harmonica, Frank, Mrs. McBain, and Cheyenne: Effective Character Introductions

Screenshot from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

The first half hour or so of Sergio Leonne’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is dedicated to introducing the four main characters. Harmonica, seen in the screenshot above playing the harmonica; Frank, an enforcer for a railroad company; Mrs. McBain, the widow of an important landowner; and Cheyenne, the leader of a gang of bandits.

What makes each introduction so effective is that each scene tells us exactly who each characters is through their actions. In Harmonica’s introduction, for instance, we very quickly understand just how calm under pressure, how dangerous, and how focused on Frank he is.

Let’s take each in turn and explore what each introduction tells us about the character.

Harmonica

The movie begins with three rugged, violent men showing up to a train station and locking the clerk in a closet. As the opening credits roll they wait patiently in their own ways. One stays in the shade and uses his hat to catch water from a slow drip above him. Another wanders the tracks. The third toys with a fly, ultimately trapping it in the barrel of his gun.

When the train shows up they become on edge. On alert, they wait for someone to get off. At first, it looks like no one will. The train pulls away.

And reveals, on the other side of the tracks, Harmonica. We are nearly ten minutes into the film.

As played by Charles Bronson, Harmonica is calm, cool, and collected. He plays his harmonica (hence the nickname) as a way to occupy himself and throw off his opponent. He knows those men are there for him.

His first question is about Frank, demonstrating how important Frank is to him. After realizing he’ll need to wait longer for Frank, he has the following exchange:

Harmonica: “You bring one [a horse] for me?”

Hired Gun: “Looks like we’re one short.”

Harmonica (shaking his head): You brought two too many.

Once upon a time in the west

Through a single action–playing the harmonica–and two lines of dialogue, we’ve already learned everything we need to know about Harmonica. We know he’s cool under pressure, is focused on someone named Frank, and is confident in his ability as a killer.

We learn one more thing about Harmonica before the film moves on. After he’s taken out all three hired guns, we see that he was only able to draw quickly enough to do so because he had hidden his gun inside of the bag he was carrying, saving him the extra movement needed to reach for a holster. He’s clever, too.

Frank

Frank’s introduction is structured similarly–most of the screentime in this sequence is dedicated to Mr. McBain preparing for his wedding feast–but just as efficient. To be fair, what we need to know about Frank is a bit more straightforward.

After watching several minutes of Mr. McBain and his children, a sense of dread slowly building, we hear a gunshot. Quail fly away in the distance while a look of concern crosses Mr. McBain’s face. When he turns back to his daughter, blood gushing from the gunshot wound in her gut. He rushes over to her and his shot himself. As he crawls, he watches as his son, who had just been about to leave to pick up Mr. McBain’s new wife from the train station, is also mowed down. He dies in the dirt with two of his three children.

Frank leads several men out of the bush that surrounds the house. His face is steely as he observes the area, still on alert for other threats. Mr. McBain’s third child, a young boy, comes out of the house, alarmed at the commotion. The men stop, unsure of how to handle the situation.

“What do we do, Frank?” one of them asks.

“Well, now that you’ve said my name…” Frank says, and then shoots the child.

And now we know everything we need to know about Frank. He likes to murder and has no rules governing him.

Mrs. McBain

Next we follow Mrs. McBain as she arrives in town to celebrate her new marriage. She gets off the train and searches for her husband, joy on her face. When he can’t be found, she waits. And when she waits for long enough, she decides to go to town herself.

She gets one of the men in town to drive her to Sweetwater, the name of the land her husband had bought, and tolerates the man’s snide remarks about what a silly purchase that was. She tolerates several stupid men from the moment she gets off the train, all with grace.

While her introduction isn’t as exciting as Harmonica or Frank, it’s just as informative. In watching her wait for her husband, whom we know is dead, we see her love for him. Her loyalty to him. And then when she solicits a ride to his land, we see her resourcefulness and independence.

Cheyenne

While on the way to Sweetwater, Mrs. McBain is forced by her driver to stop at a small bar outside of town. While she waits for him to get his drink and tolerates the bartenders advances, there is a sudden commotion outside. She is nervous, but unshaken by the gunshots.

A man stumbles through the doors, bound by handcuffs, and holding a gun we are certain is not his. He struts around the room, watching the other patrons watch him. The first thing he does is order a drink that he swigs directly from the bottle.

And then we hear the familiar harmonica. The room’s attention shifts, and Cheyenne pushes an oil lamp into the dark corner the music is coming from to reveal Harmonica. He goes to him and takes the gun that Harmonica has casually left near his feet. Cheyenne tests Harmonica, taunting him. Harmonica plays along.

Another man in the bar, clearly intimidated by Cheyenne, reaches for his gun. Cheyenne sees him and gives him a warning that stops him. Then, Cheyenne takes Harmonica’s gun, gives it to the man that just threatened to shoot him, and has the man breaks his chains.

Cheyenne takes the gun back, and returns to the bar where his men have just entered. With snark, Cheyenne lets his men know that they’ve let him down. “Oh, you’re right on time,” he says. “To bury my escorts. If I’d have waited for you, I’d be in jail by now.” The men clearly respect him.

He almost leaves with Harmonica’s gun, but gives it back when Harmonica reminds him. Harmonica tells Cheyenne that Frank is trying to frame him for a murder.

Throughout this scene, we come to understand who Cheyenne is via his actions and his dynamic with the already-established Harmonica. Because we already know what a badass Harmonica is, Cheyenne showing no fear of him and, in fact, testing him, automatically elevates him in our eyes. The movie uses an already established character as a shortcut to learn something about another.

This is the major difference from the other characters’ introductions. While the other characters are introduced on their own, and are largely defined by their individual actions, Cheyenne is largely defined by how others react to him. We see their fear and their admiration for him. Which makes sense, since Cheyenne turns out to be one of the lynchpins of the film.

By the end of the scene we’ve come to understand Cheyenne as charismatic, intimidating, dangerous, and savvy. All qualities we’ll see play out again throughout the story.

Conclusions

What I take away from these introductions is that by the end of a character introduction, your audience should know their most important traits–the thing that will carry them through the rest of the story. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST also demonstrates how many different ways you can do that. Through action, reaction, or via the characters navigating a situation they don’t know much about.

Behind the Vignette: Real Monsters

If you need to read the story, click the image above.

My childhood bedroom was in the front of our house, which meant that the streetlight on the curb threw a lot of light into my windows. At night everything created shadows that, to my overactive imagination, belonged to monsters. I distinctly remember something in my room creating a shadow I was convinced was a dinosaur. Luckily, it was a type of dinosaur I knew to be a herbivore.

Not all of the shadows felt as safe. Many forced me under the covers, convinced that I wouldn’t last the night.

Those memories were the genesis of this story, originally written years ago. But, I also wondered, what would a child do when faced with a real threat? Would they be able to conquer their fears of an imaginary one?

It’s a simple story, told simply. I wanted to layer in a few twists and turns and end on a hopeful note that not all things we’re afraid of are bad. Not too bad for just over 800 words.

Escalation: Why One Good Idea Can’t Carry a Story

Watch the scene above. And then watch the scene below.

For being similar scenes (the Trini and Kimberly scene from 2017’s POWER RANGERS is probably influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jackie Chan’s THE FEARLESS HYENA), the execution is vastly different. To me, the major difference in the scenes is that one stops at the idea and the other builds on the initial idea. And I think that escalation of ideas from an initial kernel to an exploration of multiple ideas is what elevates small moments in an overall story from good to great.

An idea is rarely enough to build a story around. A single thought or idea is usually pretty easily explored and can’t sustain the momentum needed to tell a compelling story. The chopstick fight, while only being a minute and a half long, throws a bunch of ideas at the audience, each building on the last, taking a single joke premise (as in POWER RANGERS) and elevating it into a truly great scene, culminating in the sly reveal that Jackie Chan has stones in his mouth instead of the chicken he was fighting his Uncle over.

Sketch comedy is a good example of this theory at work. A common criticism of Saturday Night Live is that their worst sketches are single ideas drawn out too long. Key and Peele, on the other hand, are masters at evolving their ideas to sustain a premise longer than it should go. Take the example below.

The joke escalates from being about the inherent silliness of rap battles, to an overexcited hype man, to a continuous escalation that becomes difficult to manage, and ends with a twist that satirizes Of Mice and Men. The initial premise builds on itself until a twist that feels different but is logical.

I think that’s what separates great stories from good ones. Similar to the way that Stephen King uses trauma, finding ways to continually freshen your story for the audience not only keeps them engaged, but allows the storyteller to explore different avenues, different ideas, with more depth.

Coronavirus: Another Rant

NIAID / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

A few times per month my wife and I order Vietnamese food from a local restaurant. After a bad experience with delivery, where half of our pho was spilled into the bag and part of our order was missing, I’ve been going to pick it up.

Usually, I’ll walk in and our order will be on a table to grab and go. Takes less than a minute. This last time I went, on a Saturday evening around 7pm, I was surprised to find 12 people doing dine-in, and another man waiting at the pick-up table for his food. There was a single waitress running around, trying to attend to everyone, and a waiter that seemed to be coordinating with the kitchen, taking phone calls, and preparing the to-go orders. I waited close to 10 minutes for my order, in a small restaurant with at least 14 other people breathing the same air.

I had noticed on the drive, too, that many of the restaurants I passed by were at least half-full.

On the evening I’m writing this, there were 182,772 new Coronavirus cases in the United States yesterday. Where I live, in Delaware County, PA, there were 273 new cases. The county we border, Philadelphia County, just shut down again.

My ability to understand this situation is stretched thin. I get that, at its simplest (and not assuming people are actively trying to be harmful, although those assholes surely exist) the rationale goes like this:

  • Small business owners (like the Vietnamese restaurants) can’t survive without being mostly open.
  • People stuck at home since March have cabin fever, especially in the colder weather, and want to go out.
  • Employees of these small businesses need to make ends meet, so they’re forced to work even if they don’t think it’s safe.
  • Federal and State government isn’t doing shit to help anyone.

I don’t blame small business owners for trying to survive, even if I think it’s wrong to put your employees and other people at risk to do so. I especially don’t blame employees that need a paycheck. If anyone is blameless in this situation, it’s the waitress who has no choice but to risk her life and possibly the people she’s close to so she can keep a roof over her head.

I do blame the people that incentivize this behavior by going out to eat in a restaurant. It’s a selfish, unnecessary risk. Many might argue that the government says that restaurants can be open up to 50% occupancy, and that they’re observing social distancing measures. Here’s are the two major problems with that line of thinking:

  • It’s clear the Federal Government doesn’t give a fuck about you and most State Government don’t, either. They don’t want to redirect our taxpayer money to actually protect us, so we need to force them to by not patronizing places even if they’re open. If the government said to go to restaurants and the gym or whatever, if no one went and enough pressure was applied to local officials, there would be very little choice but to actually support hurting businesses with stimulus.
  • Social distancing, especially indoors, is largely bullshit. The EPA says, “Evidence now confirms that this virus can remain airborne for longer times and further distances than originally thought. In addition to close contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces, spread of COVID-19 may also occur via airborne particles in indoor environments, in some circumstances beyond the 2 m (about 6 ft) range encouraged by some social distancing recommendations.” The EPA is saying this, and the Trump Administration has done its best to scrub actual science from the EPA, so that alone should signify how dire this is.

People are dying. A lot of people. Over 250,000 so far, with an end only recently sighted, although that won’t be available to non-essential workers or government officials (i.e., most of us) until much later.

So stay home. Please. As someone with two older, not-super-healthy parents and a pregnant wife, stop being dickheads. Order in. Avoid large crowds.

Keep one another safe.

Pet Peeves: Protagonists that are the Villains of their Stories

Sam and Dean Winchester are the villains of the show. In this essay I will…

My wife got me into SUPERNATURAL. I just finished up the eighth season and, I’ve come to realize that the Winchesters are the villains of their own show. Many of the problems they face are of their own making, either because of selfishness, ignorance, or legitimate villainy. Sometimes, it makes the show difficult to watch.

There is an exchange late in the eighth season that demonstrates what I mean, and how the show is at least peripherally aware of it. SPOILERS AHEAD for an episode that originally aired in 2013.

STOP READING TO AVOID A MINOR, INCONSEQUENTIAL SPOILER.

Alright, so one of the Prophets of God, Kevin, able to read the Word of God, has been kidnapped by the King of Hell, Crowley. Crowley has imprisoned him in a set-up indistinguishable from his hideout and had his demons take the form of Sam and Dean Winchester, who Kevin trusts, in order to learn where Kevin has hidden one of the tablets. Kevin figures out that he’s not dealing with the real Sam and Dean. This exchange follows:

Crowley: “What gave it away?”

Kevin: “The real Sam and Dean would never go across town to get me barbeque.”

Crowley: “So, my demons were too polite?”

Supernatural – S8:E21 “The Great escapist”

That’s indicative of the show at large–many of the biggest issues Sam and Dean face they cause themselves. This is a trope in many stories, so much so that you can neatly classify it multiple ways depending on the intent of the story and motivation of the character. Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another good example of this, as most of the problems he or the Avengers has to deal with are his own fault.

I find these tropes frustrating if handled poorly (as, unfortunately, Supernatural tends to) because it makes the characters harder to root for. In Supernatural’s case, I often wonder if Sam and Dean aren’t the actual villains of the entire series. I don’t want to be tricked into rooting for the villains.

Much of the time for a protagonist to inadvertently cause the problems or conflicts that the story hinges on, they have to make an irrational or sometimes downright stupid decision. Decisions like the ones pointed out here.

It can be difficult to write a compelling, conflict-filled story where people don’t make irrational decisions to keep the story going forward, especially for long-running series or when characters run out of ways to grow. So, as writers, we need to work extra hard to maintain that momentum and keep evolving with the story without pushing it too hard in any one direction.

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