Rick and Ilsa. Buzz and Woody. George Clooney and anyone.
Three of the greatest and most fulfilling screen pairings in cinema history. Not by coincidence, either. Every great story has heart, and where is that heart? In the romance, friendship, rivalry, parental love between characters. I could list endlessly, but it all comes down to one thing. A personal relationship. Stories are reflections of real life and our own psychology. And since we all have had great relationships and bad ones, this is something we relate to on a deeply personal level.
It’s a basic principle of Screenwriting that your Main Character must butt heads with someone.
And therein lies the basis of the relationship: two people that disagree on something, each fighting their corner until one of them submits.
In Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa fight over Rick’s fear of commitment (in regards to the freedom causes they both once supported and his personal fear of being hurt again), until Rick finally confronts his fears. In Toy Story, Buzz and Woody fight over their identities (in regards to Woody’s position as top toy and Buzz’s belief that he is not a toy), until Buzz comes to terms with the fact that he is, in fact, a toy.
But these relationships go deeper than merely surface conflict, or “I’m not this/yes you are” style bickering.
The Main Character and their opponent are actually very, very similar. That’s what makes the relationship work.
These two characters are in similar situations, but handle their problems differently — thereby creating a give-and-take relationship. In Ratatouille, the incredibly talented Remy longs to be a chef, but he’s a rat. He cannot be part of this world. Remy continues searching for ways to make his dream come true. Then he meets Linguini, the generally untalented nephew of famed chef Gusteau that nobody wants in the cooking world. Whereas Remy takes action to make his dreams come true, Linguini mopes about the lack of respect he gets. But at the heart of the relationship, the over-talented Remy finds himself drawn to cooking, the under-gifted Linguini pushed away from it. Those are similar circumstances, handled differently. Only together can they find a way to achieve what they want.
That’s the sign of a great screenwriter.
Brad Bird knows that it’s not enough to pit two opposing characters against one another. That gets boring very quickly. The team at Pixar are more aware than anyone that there has to be an emotional, thematically guided argument beneath the central relationship. This is why Pixar had such a long unbroken streak of success. Their movies have heart: Boo and Sully; Marlin and Dory; Bob and Helen. Then... Cars 2 broke the winning streak. But up to, and past that particular story, just about every Pixar movie takes care to craft an impactful relationship that means something.
We remember great relationships like we remember great characters.
That’s not to say that every relationship has to be necessarily antagonistic in its opposition. Movies like The Devil Wears Prada, The Iron Giant or Amélie have relationships akin to mentorship: Miranda Priestly is unpleasant to Andy, yes, but she’s working to build Andy into a worthy successor in her own image; Hogarth is showing the Iron Giant the world, trying to help him understand the processes behind life and death; The Glass Man tries to help
Amélie breaks out of her head and get into the real world.
These positive relationships aren’t better or worse than the antagonistic ones. They’re just a different approach to the same concept. As always, every story is its own thing and demands it’s own treatment.
Another important aspect of the relationship is that it’s a variation on the bigger, primary theme of the story, a minor perspective on a bigger idea.
“The best approach is to be yourself” is the relationship theme to The 40-Year-Old-Virgin’s bigger theme of “Excuses don’t work when it comes to relationships”. Despite his friends’ insistence to the contrary, Andy discovers that making excuses for his behaviour doesn’t work; Andy tries a number of different approaches, but only finds love when he is himself.
“Committing to the wrong thing hurts those closest to you” is the relationship theme to Rain Man’s bigger theme of “What’s best for you is not necessarily what’s best for others.” Charlie is determined to get the inheritance money his father left to his autistic brother Raymond, but ultimately finds that Raymond’s condition is more important than his personal gain. He switches to be the good, responsible brother.
“Delay it as long as you want, but love will find you” is the relationship theme to When Harry Met Sally’s bigger theme of “Maintain hope and you’ll find love and happiness”. Harry and Sally’s constant stopping and starting of their relationship, their long friendship, the eleven years they avoid their inevitable relationship ironically dovetails with their continued hopes for finding happiness with the right people.
I get very disappointed when I see movies or read scripts don’t do this. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s the difference between The Incredibles and Cars 2. Everything in your screenplay should have a purpose behind it, some thematic significance. Every character, every relationship, every scene should have a purpose. This sub-theme reaffirms your narrative argument, which is why you’re writing the story in the first place, right? If you’re writing a screenplay without having something to say, why bother in the first place?
Imagine I’ve been hired to write an action movie. These are the conditions: it has to be about a secret agent trying to get a mafia boss and it has to be a female lead. I could write it as a Bond-esque movie; I could do it like Salt; I could do a number of things. But whatever I write will be forgotten swiftly and ultimately mean nothing if I don’t have a solid relationship and something to say. So let’s think for a second.
My main character Joanne has to find a mafia boss before he executes a witness. We have some built-in blockbuster stakes. But what does it mean? I like the thematic argument of “The world owes you nothing”, so perhaps Joanne is the entitled daughter of a legendary agent that believes she’s as good as he is. But then, she’s forced to go along with a partner!
He’s an annoyingly overly-talkative agent named Greg, and he refuses to compromise on his big dreams of being the hero. Already, we have a great relationship riddled with conflict, Joanne’s gonna hate this guy but he’s really not that different! Over the course of the story, Greg will somehow show Joanne that the world owes her nothing, and they’ll learn to work together to save the day. But what’s the sub-theme of their relationship? I like the sound of “Duty calls, regardless of how you feel about it”. That ties in with the idea of Joanne being ‘above’ this job, forcing her to get things done with someone she can’t stand.
So, already you can see that the story actually has something to say. It’s not going to be the meaningless CGI-fest that it could have been. People would leave that movie with something. They’d remember the playfully antagonistic banter between the characters; they’d recognize the themes of working for success. Everything would have some kind of impact on the audience, as opposed to a generic ‘bang-bang’ shoot-em-up action flick.
And I think that’s the underlying purpose of having a relationship in narrative. Whereas the ‘main’ theme and action gives logical meaning (‘Lying hurts people’; ‘The experience is worth the journey’), the ‘relationship’ theme gives the emotional meaning. Audiences watch unrealistic movies all the time, but if the relationship feels real, they’re sucked into the drama emotionally. And, let’s be honest, that’s what we’re going for.
In all good screenplays, nothing is circumstantial.
Everything means something.