here are two ways you can be introduced to a character, the real-world way or the accepted western literary way.
So say you are in a western bar. In walks a cowboy. In the real-world way, he will likely sit down next to you and start to chat (since bars are social gathering places and if you wanted to drink alone in your sulk, you’d buy a bottle and sit with your horse in the stable). Anyway, this hypothetical cowboy would chat with you, perhaps telling you where he was born, and what ranches he worked on. Possibly if he’d shot a man in Dodge City, he’d tell you all about it – it would be an exciting tale that would be fun to share. But yes, a person who’d ridden that lonely trail would be more than happy to blab about everything to you.
And then we have the taciturn literary cowboy. He comes in the bar, orders a bottle of whiskey, then slowly drinks it down, giving you that cool look. There is no invitation to his table, no shared chat. He’s just silent in his corner, watching everyone, not connecting at all.
Of course, the reason for this media cowboy is backstory. As an audience, we are now very curious about him. Only later will someone who knows him ends up telling us he killed three men in Cheyenne. Or that he’s a peace-loving man. Or he went through hell at Shiloh. Gradually across 300 pages or two hours of film, we’ll learn all about his history and motives. That’s a western trope for you.
And we accept this ideal into our ways of telling stories (and even living our lives). Cool and quiet people seem mysterious and we want to know more. Blabbermouths are not so interesting since we learn everything up front.
I realized this in the last year when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After the initial diagnosis (and the terror, frustration, and railing against God), I decided that I’d be quiet about it. I wouldn’t say anything. Nobody could understand it, not being in my shoes. I’d just quietly go and meet my fate, either surviving surgery or having a beautiful funeral. That was the plan.
It lasted about a week.
I was at my model train club when I let slip about what I was facing – I think someone noticed I had been really quiet and withdrawn all week. So I spilled the beans. Turns out the guy I was talking with had had this same cancer (he treated it with radiation). News spread around the club and members offered support – there were at least six to eight other guys who faced this very same thing. It ended up meaning a lot to me, a chance to discuss things and find out how their lives had changed and their various stories of recovery.
Yes, I could have been that lonely cowboy, quietly holding in the upset and angst. Or I could have opened my mouth and revealed my backstory early. Turns out what I did was the right thing – it made the nine uneasy months waiting for surgery a little easier to endure. So don’t suffer alone – if you are facing something terrifying or frustrating, reach out to a friend (or even a hot line). To bury it deep within you might make you all mysterious and alluring, but it also might make you crazy.
Life shouldn’t always be drawn from movie plots. Write your own story.