If there is one idea I’ve heard time and time again from editors and writers, it is this: A stable marriage is dull. It’s not that marriage is bad, to them, it’s just that it’s not very dramatically interesting. The core of classical drama, after all, is conflict and change, two things that don’t typically lead to much stability in a love life. On its surface, this argument makes sense, but a lot of commonly held beliefs like that make sense on the surface, only to prove a bit less honest when you dig beneath the surface. So, welcome to Matrimonial Bliss, a new series of articles highlighting some of the great married couples of film, television, and literature.
I want to open with one of my all-time favorite film couples: Nick and Nora Charles, the husband-and-wife detective duo from 1930’s mystery series The Thin Man. Nick is a charming alcoholic who retired from detective work when he married adventurous wealthy society gal Nora. When we meet them, they’ve been married for some time, developed a rapid-fire patter between them that mostly just confuses anyone outside the bubble and a seemingly unbreakable trust. They drink relentlessly, party constantly, and occasionally- very occasionally – solve a mystery or two between martinis.
Take a look at this scene, Nora’s introduction in the film and one of the most iconic drinking scenes I can remember.
Most of the time, fictional wives are what Andrew Matthews called ‘plotblockers‘. Think Anna Gunn’s Skyler White, of Breaking Bad fame, or any superheroic spouse/friend/relative kept in the dark ‘to keep them safe’. It’s not particularly dramatic to watch a character say “Don’t do this,” and then to have the character do it anyway. Sure, it takes up pages and fills up runtime, but that’s really the kindest that can be said about it in most instances. In reality, what it does is turn the fictional spouse into a minor antagonist, a road block the hero must overcome as part of his growth. If your hero’s wife is one of the main villains of your thriller, she’d better be Gone Girl level fascinating to watch if you want to make me care about that conflict.
Or, better yet, make them both the heroes. Don’t throw the wife under the bus to jumpstart the tension early. In The Thin Man, Nora is immediately introduced as Nick’s equal, going drink-for-drink and, later in the film, pushing him to get involved with the story in a way he isn’t particularly interested in. Typically, wives in fiction are treated as a gatekeeper, struggling mightily to prevent their men – and their audience – from having fun out of a maternal concern for safety. Nora inverts that, becoming the impetus that keeps pushing her husband – and their audience – towards the fun. Indeed, while Nick is the detective, without Nora, there is no The Thin Man. Nick never gets involved in the story. Rather than treating Nora as a maternal presence meant to keep Nick safe, she’s an adventurer trying to prod her retired husband to get back in to the swing of things, to spice up the dullness of married society life with a murder mystery every now and again.
This is something you’ll see over and over again as this column continues: If you want your married couple – or dating couple, or family, or whatever – to be interesting, you can’t give the man all the ‘story positive’ traits. What I mean by that is, you can’t give the male character all the traits that push the story forward and the female character all the traits that hold it back. Here, Nick has the skills to solve the mystery, so Nora is given the drive to solve the mystery. If Nick had both, you’d have one interesting character and one extraneous one. As it is, there’s still conflict – Nora wants to dive into the adventure; Nick wants to relax and throw a party – and change – Nora convinces Nick to give a damn; Nick jumps into showboating mode to impress Nora – but instead of Nick driving both, that narrative work is split evenly between the pair of them.
That helps you make a good, functional couple of characters. It’s the wit and vibrancy of Dashiell Hammett’s book, of husband-wife screenwriting duo Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and of on-screen couple William Powell and Myrna Loy that place Nick and Nora among the truly great partners in film history. You can write a perfectly fun, functional couple, but chemistry is a thing, even with fictional characters, and that’s a little harder to invent. It’s little things, like the banter the pair of them share or Nick’s confidence in admitting to Nora that he has no idea what’s going on, that ground them as something more relatable. If the key to building a great romantic relationship in a story is putting two characters together and letting the audience fall in love with them as they do, then the key to crafting a great stable relationship is putting two characters together who you just have to keep spending time with.
Nick and Nora throw the best parties, give each other the best gifts, and solve the best mysteries. They drink like fish and approach the world with a devil-may-care wit. Who could resist?
The Thin Man is the first film in a six-film series, made in 1934. The Thin Man was written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich adapting hardboiled legend Dashiell Hammett, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. It is available on DVD, and for rent on streaming services like YouTube.