There are several ways to help an audience connect with the relationships between two or more characters. (In)Famously, there is the meet cute, wherein two people meet in a contrived, coincidental, but “cute” way, like bumping heads when reaching for the same dropped book or something. There are also “frenemies,” who begin as diametrically enemies and slowly become friends, investing the audience in their transformation, like Crowley and the Winchesters on SUPERNATURAL. And there are always the diverse group of people thrown together, like the study group on COMMUNITY or Leia, Luke, and Hanh in STAR WARS.
With the right dynamics, these are all legitimate ways to invest an audience in a set of relationships. However, I think one of the most effective ways of connecting an audience with two characters is to pair contrasts together. The Amazon Prime show TRUTH SEEKERS relies on this dynamic for several of its characters to great effect.
TRUTH SEEKERS makes the audience care about the relationships between its characters by making them odd pairs of contrasts who have a singular thing in common. The two core pairs in the show lean on this with the relationships between Gus (a middle-aged widower who is interested in the paranormal) and Elton (a single wanderer that attracts the paranormal), and Richard (a lonely old man) and Helen (an agoraphobic young woman).
For Gus and Elton, they both have the paranormal in common. Gus is attracted to it, mostly because of his late wife, while Elton is repelled from it due to an experience when he was a child. Unfortunately for Elton, but to Gus’s delight, the paranormal is attracted to him. This automatically introduces conflict into their relationship, so the audience is immediately invested in seeing them work together and come to an understanding.
Richard and Helen have loneliness in common. Only in Richard’s case it’s because he’s old and stuck in his house all day, while Helen is young but afraid to leave her house. The audience roots for them to solve one another’s loneliness and for Richard to help Helen overcome her agoraphobia.
These types of dynamics are shortcuts for the audience to identify with and latch onto characters. TRUTH SEEKERS does it especially well, in my opinion, because of the commonalities between the characters and how that allows them to help one another grow.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
OK, so you have an idea for this awesome scene where a guy saves a child and her puppy from a burning orphanage. And the guy is a former NAVY Seal who has PTSD. Good stuff, right?
But that’s just a scene, not a story. So now what? What happens next?
This is a problem I face every single time I start a new script. I’m facing it right now, as I work on a Western I’ve been excited about for a long time. I have an inciting event, a great setting, some interesting characters, but no real story to speak of. I thought I had a story, just like I thought I had a story with The Inhabitors, but it’s rapidly changing as I outline my characters and work to get in their heads. By finding common threads between them, seeing how they relate to one another and the world around them, the story I initially wanted to tell has slowly been changing into something else. Something deeper.
In this case I had a theme I was interested in exploring, and a timeframe and setting that played into that theme. The trick, then, was developing conflicts that played into the theme through the characters experiences, flaws, and morals. However, this still isn’t a story. But it’s the beginnings of one.
Now that I’ve developed my characters and their baggage, I can start to develop the story by focusing on one as our protagonist. His arc is a natural beginning and end. Then, I take the other characters, including who I want to be the antagonist, and put them into situations where they interact – whether that be via conflict or where they’re forced to work together for a common goal. The story comes organically from that.
This isn’t the only way to craft a story. In that past I’ve created outlines that map beat-by-beat how the story should play out. This isn’t necessarily a bad way to approach it, but I’ve found that I prefer to focus more on characters and let them lead me to where they want to go. There will be course corrections, and sometimes (as was the case with Peripheral) I push the characters too far one way where they’re not really the characters I wanted them to be, but it’s all a part of learning the story as you go for the first draft.
That’s all this is, doing preparation for the first draft. Because the second, third, fourth, and fifth-through-one-hundreth drafts are where the story really takes shape.
One of those most important things to do when conceiving of a story is figuring out what sort of world the story takes place in. Much like characters, your story should only be able to take place in that particular world. But besides that, the world needs to be a living organism separate from your character. While the story should be unique to both, both are also unique to one another.
See, your character is the center of the story, not the center of the world of the story. Things should not happen solely because the character needs them to happen. The focus shouldn’t be on one character. Good world-building alludes to other characters, other events, other machinations that make your characters struggle more worthwhile. No one lives in a bubble and no one is omnipresent so your main character shouldn’t be, either.
That’s not to say it’s ok to let the world interfere with the characters at random (unless, of course, that is built into the fabric of the story to begin with). The texture of the world is there for just that – texture. In the climax of the story to have your protagonist get hit by a car because a man he was in no way connected to was drunk because his wife left him because she found out he was cheating on her with his coworker who bla bla bla is cheating. It may be true to the world – sometimes shit like that happens – but it’s not true to the story. And the story is what is important. If it is important to the story for something like that to happen then that too needs to be built into the world.
Which is a confusing way to say the world needs rules that tie in with your theme and/or story in order to be believable. If your character gets hit by a car in the climax then the world needs to allow for that sort of randomness to take place in order for the audience to not feel cheated or misled. If your character is an engineer on a spacecraft who has to fend off an alien attack when everyone else is killed, and the story is about his redemption in the eyes of his daughter, then the world needs to allow for an engineer to save the human race from a force he doesn’t understand. Some sort of telegraphed deus ex machima. A skill that we know he has but isn’t obvious that helps him defeat the threat. A weakness that the aliens have that can be exploited in the right way.
The way I view screenplays, or any story for that matter, is in layers. You can choose your own baked-goods-based analogy if you like. But each layer of the story should be built on and tie into the previous layers. That, to me, is the best way to build a story from the ground up. The world is the same idea.
Future Soldier in the Word Wars
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.