In this post, we look at the role of characters and the rule of two for writers.
This is my opinion on a trope I have noticed over the years and how some authors use it well.
Characters and the rule of two is not widely taught. In fact, it’s not really a rule. But, when it is used well, stories become entertaining, meaningful, and easy to follow.
Characters & The Rule Of Two For Writers
What Is The Rule Of Two?
It is the link between two characters, and, how they are introduced to your story.
This is a device to link or contrast characters and to simplify the process of developing them.
1. R2D2 & C3PO
Possibly the best and most straightforward example is R2D2 and C3PO from George Lucas’s Star Wars.
They are a comedy pairing and the very first characters introduced to us in the first Star Wars.
They are shown walking as a pair in the same shot. This creates a connection. C3PO translates what R2 says. This furthers a connection. They bicker and argue like a married couple – creating a relationship archetype.
Everything they do creates a link between them as well as a contrast between their personality types.
2. Sherlock & Watson
As you can see from the example above, the most common way to pair up characters is to have a straight man and an oddball.
Dr Watson is our straight man and Sherlock Holmes is the oddball.
There are some other types that this rule uses. For example:
- A pair that comes together over the course of a story and forms inseparable partnerships rather than being shown as a ready-made couple. This works very well for buddy-cop style genres, like Starsky and Hutch.
- It also works well as a hero and sidekick dynamic. Think Batman and Robin. Or as villain and hero. Think Superman and Lex Luthor
What The Rule Of Two Does
1. It Creates A Link
It makes a link between characters. This is important in developing feelings between your characters and it helps the audience relate to them. This is because they can transpose their own relationships on this pairing.
By the way, you don’t need to introduce characters at the same time to make this work. For example, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker form a pair in Star Wars and they never actually meet face to face in the first movie.
However, they are introduced close together with a clear opposition. As the dark-side and light-side characters, they form a Ying Yang pair. This lets your audience know early on just who your protagonist is fighting against.
2. It Adds Structure
Because this technique creates relationships, your audience expects certain behaviours. Your buddy cops must learn to work together. The villain must try to thwart the hero. The hero must train his sidekick.
- In Star Wars, both Luke and Vader need Princess Leia. That is the whole plot and everything that happens is a side-effect of their need to rescue or capture her.
- In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, everything starts with our contrasting pair Bilbo and Gandalf. One wants to be left alone one wants the other to go on an adventure – hard cut to a dragon burning down a town for dramatic effect.
3. It Saves Time
Akira Toriyama, of Dragon Ball fame, always introduced characters as pairs. Except for his main villains because they were paired with the hero.
He did this because he was a notoriously bad planner – much to the dismay of his editor who often had to help him finish his plots.
‘Haha, that’s great… Wait, did I write that?’ — Akira Toriyama, Interview with, Tadaima Ittekurunda, 1997
When you introduce two characters, and they have a clear relationship, most of the work is done. You just have to follow that relationship to its conclusion. Which is great from Pantsers.
And, A Little History
The structure of this style probably originates from the Kurosawa films. Particularly, The Seven Samurai. This was then popularised in the West when films like The Magnificent Seven started mimicking that style.
But, it really came to the fore when George Lucas made Star Wars. He was a huge fan of Japanese samurai movies and westerns. And a generation of writers like Toriyama loved Star Wars and started recreating these tropes in their own works.
As for when this started in literature, well who can say? Notably, it doesn’t happen much in older manuscripts.
- The oldest reference I can think of is in Gylfaginning from the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, where Thor and Loki form a comic pair as they go on a journey where some silly things happen to them.
- Possibly, there are some other myths like Psyche and Eros but that relationship is really a love story. As such, it forms part of the main plot or part of the sup-plot and is not being used as shorthand or to simplify the introduction of new characters.
- In Japan, there is a stand-up routine called Manzai. This is a traditional form of comedy where a duo of a straight man and a comic character, a fool, have a dialogue. This is probably why Kurosawa used this trope.
The Final Word
In general, characters and the rule of two is a pretty ancient concept and crops up everywhere from Don Quixote to Scooby-Doo.
So, don’t resist it. In fact, I think it might be a sign of a mature and practised author.
I hope this was helpful, and if not, at least interesting.
Why not give it a try in your next piece of writing?
TOP TIP: Use our Character Creation Kit to help you create great characters for your stories.