I watched Midnight Cowboy last night. It's a wonderful film, and the screenplay won the Oscar in 1969. It made me think about tools and character, and just how important it is to REALLY think about character, and then use what you've learned to bring your character to the screen.
Midnight Cowboy tells the story of Joe Buck, a vain and naive kid from Texas, who moves to New York to try his hand as a gigalo. Once there, the rich women aren't the easy pickin's he'd been planning on, and he sinks into a seedy world with probably the only friend he truly ever had, the hopeless loser and petty thief Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman.
Both characters are defined by their inability to see their problem. Neither can admit that they're truly lonely, and that they, in many ways, hate themselves and have no real prospects. This is what keeps them in the plot. When a religious closet case asks Joe if he's lonely, he can only bristle at the questioner's directness.
A lot of screenwriters get their characters asking about each other's problems because that seems like the easiest way to get them out in the open. But that dialogue homogenizes the characters, and makes it too easy for them. If they can describe the problem, it just isn't that big. Worse yet, the answers are clear.
How does Waldo Salt (the screenwriter) use his characters to get over this problem? Neither have any real prospects. Neither have a good reason to leave their condemned apartment except to steal some food. Neither can admit his place in the food chain. These are some hard characters to write.
Take the movie's opening. You get this long sequence of Joe trying to say goodbye to a town that's not really interested. You get a long bus ride to New York, with more more or less meaningless contacts. And Joe listening to his portable radio. At first you think: what the hell. Nothing's happening. Then you realize it's all coming from Joe's perspective. The greatest sop to his loneliness was the young mother asking for a piece of gum for her child, and the old woman who won't let him turn the light off. He's frickin' lonely. Does he say he's lonely? Nope. And before you know it, old Waldo's got his main character in New York with very little dialogue.
Let's take Ratso Rizzo. The guy's more or less scum. He hustles Joe for twenty bucks the first time we see him. He invites Joe into his house. Very few characters could explain why he does this. Rizzo definitely not. But he does it, and WE understand why. He says it's ostensibly to make up for ripping off Joe. But he's just made it clear he doesn't really care about that. When Joe pushes him, he plays the respect card: I'm inviting you. I don't do that kind of thing. How dare you refuse? And Joe, who's got nowhere to go, accedes. In five minutes or less, Joe Buck goes from wanting to kill Rizzo to living with him. No attempt to explain. But it makes perfect sense.
Take another plot point. By the midpoint of the film, it's been established that Joe just isn't going to make it as a gigalo with women. But that's what the movie's about. So what are you going to do? What's a character trait that Joe has that can move this forward? His clownishness -- the cowboy hat and the bandana around his neck -- actually work to his favor in a certain setting, and it gets him an invitation to an underground party full of whackos. There he meets a woman who's enough of an explorer and free spirit to more or less take Joe up on it on a whim. It's twenty bucks. No big deal. It gets us to the next plot point, and it makes perfect sense.
By solving the problems by turning to his characters' main traits, the screenwriter made sure that both his story and his character were true to themselves and entertaining within every ten page beat.