But there’s an easier way to tell a unique story. You’re going to have much better luck if you take two familiar characters and give them a believable but never-seen-before relationship. The high school outcast is a familiar archetype, but let’s put that character into a unique never-seen-in-a-story-before relationship:
- My Bodyguard is about a high school outcast who pays a scary bully to protect him from the other kids.
- Rushmore is about a high school outcast who strikes up a friendship with one of his private school’s funders who feels equally alienated.
- Election is about a high school outcast who infuriates her teacher so much that he tries to sabotage her student government election.
I’ve known a lot of strange people, but none so strange that I can’t think of a preexisting character just like them. On the other hand, I’ve had a dozen oddball relationships in my life that I’ve never seen replicated: unlikely friendships, overdivulging bosses, bizarre dates, etc.
Don’t force one dysfunctional character to generate conflict single-handedly. Allow two seemingly functional characters to set each other off in an unexpectedly dysfunctional way. Such things have happened to you, and if it’s happened to you, then it’s happened to others in the audience. They’ll happily smile in identification when they see it portrayed.
It’s fascinating to go back and rewatch the first few episodes of 30 Rock. All of the elements of greatness are there from the beginning, but the show doesn’t work yet, because the writers haven’t found their focus. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is annoyed by her boss, Jack (Alec Baldwin), and by her own employees, generating a lot of conflict, but the conflict is flat. All of the individual characters are funny, but they all have relationships we’ve seen before.
Then, suddenly, in episode six, everything snaps into place, and the show recenters itself on a new, never-before-seen-on-television relationship. In that episode, Liz reluctantly accepts an ongoing offer of mentorship from Jack, despite the fact that she’s a loosey-goosey, left-wing girl-about-town and he’s a type A, right-wing, ultrasexist alpha male. This odd but mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationship quickly becomes the heart of the show, generating dozens of unique stories and conflicts we haven’t seen before. The result is seven great seasons of television.
Think about times in your life when an acquaintance suddenly became your nemesis or a love affair took a strange left turn. If this was a fascinating relationship that we haven’t seen portrayed before, then you’ll find fresh emotions to tap into.
Can you find relationships from your life that are as incongruous as those seen in Paper Moon (a conman teams up with an eleven-year-old girl) or Midnight Run (a hard-assed bounty hunter has to escort a timid accountant)? If not, you can always invent one. Simply take two very different types of characters and force them to rely on each other in a unique way.
Rulebook Casefile: Milking the Unique Relationship in The Apartment
In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter and Miss Kubelik are both familiar types: the shnook and the strung-along other woman. But their relationship is utterly unique: She is having an affair with Baxter’s boss in his own apartment. The entire story is fueled by the uniqueness of this relationship. At first neither is aware of their unique relationship. Rather than reveal the true nature of their relationship all at once, Wilder and Diamond parcel out this reveal very gradually over the course of the movie, milking this unique relationship for all it’s worth.
What if neither Baxter nor the audience had been aware of the situation until Baxter came home one day to find Kubelik and Sheldrake, in flagrante, covering themselves up in embarrassment? That would have delivered the maximum amount of shock, but so many emotions would have come flooding out at once (for the audience, for Baxter, for Kubelick, and for Sheldrake) that the moment would have been overwhelming. Instead, screenwriters Wilder and Diamond proceed slowly and deliberately:
- First, when we in the audience see Kubelik at the Chinese restaurant, we feel the shock of realizing that Baxter’s crush has been sleeping with another man in his own apartment, No one onscreen is experiencing this revelation at the same time we are, so we get this moment to ourselves. Now that we know more than any of the characters do, we can fully appreciate the irony of this situation...
- Later, Baxter recognizes Kubelik’s broken mirror at the Christmas party, and realizing that she is his boss’s mistress. Because she does not know what the mirror means to him, he gets this painful moment all to himself.
- Later, when Baxter finds her “asleep” in his bed, his anger flares up. Because he does not yet know she has taken too many sleeping pills, he gets to have this much-needed cathartic release, before he has to suddenly shift back to feeling sympathy for her as he tries to save her.
- Later, the doctor slowly wakes Kubelik up. With Baxter out of the room, she gets a moment to experience the shame of her failed suicide attempt. After that passes, she sees Baxter there and experiences an entirely different sort of shame as the final revelation finally falls into place: she realizes that she been carrying on her affair in the apartment of the man who really loves her.
The unique relationship between this shnook and this other woman is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, and Wilder and Diamond milk this painful situation for all it’s worth.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES, bickering working-class space crew.
NO. Not really…maybe with Jenny and the other moll.
YES. a mother and son who each think the other is a monster.
YES. Very much so: a black old west sheriff and an alchoholic white gunslinger.
YES. an amateur investigator in a sadomasochistic relationship with his target.
The Bourne Identity
YES. the spy and the bohemian.
YES. Rivals for the title of maid of honor.
YES. an expatriate bar-owner and his corrupt police chief friend.
YES. A detective and the woman who he was fooled into thinking he was representing.
YES. A ruthless undercover cop and the sad-sack mobster he targets.
Do the Right Thing
YES. a pizza delivery man and his boss.
YES. a girl and her grandmother when the girl is hiding from the grandmother that she’s dying.
YES. a boxer and his crackhead brother.
YES. A princess and an ice merchant must team up to stop another princess.
YES. Very much so: a fugitive and his Marshall.
YES. Very much so. We’ve never seen a pairing like Chris and Rose before, once we find out what’s really going on.
YES. A weatherman and his producer.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. A boy and his dragon.
In a Lonely Place
YES. a romance between a man and the stranger that alibis him.
YES. An arms dealing billionaire and his military liaison
YES. None of the relationships are tremendously unique, but they’re all original enough not to be cliché. We’ve seen relationships of the sort we see here with the mom, the dad, Julie, Jenna, Danny, and Kyle, but not with these well-observed unique details.
YES. The couple are an ex-con and ex-cop.
YES. a student and his school’s funder.
YES. Very much so: An activist and a president.
Somewhat: we’ve seen a wife and son afraid of the dad before. The Halloran/Danny relationship is unique.
YES. A divorced middle-age man and his middle-aged best friend who is getting married for the first time.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. FBI and serial killer working together.
YES. (Unless you’ve seen Hidden Fortress) The farmboy, the mercenary, the princess, the hermit and the princess.