So I have been rewatching Joss Whedon’s brief, lamented TV show Firefly and I started to notice how, especially in the pilot, one of the primary ways we get introduced to the characters and find out who they are is by watching their interactions/relationships with the other characters. This may seem obvious, especially for folks who are more used to reading/watching/writing for stage and small and big screens, but my background is primarily in poetry, stories and novels. In poetry what you primarily have to show your characters is their language. Do they talk like Tennyson’s King Arthur or like Popeye? In prose fiction, you get narrative description and internal monologue in addition to dialogue. But in more cinematic stories, all you get is what you can see and hear: costumes, dialect, and interactions that show, for example, affection or power or the like.
So we see the disillusioned Captain Mal Reynolds keeping a lid on the man he relies on for muscle and automatic weapons, Jayne, who is not a bad guy, just pragmatic and occasionally a little mean, when he teases the innocent mechanic Kayley for her obvious crush on the upper class doctor, Simon Tam. Mal has a love/hate relationship for the stylish Companion (read: courtesan) Inara, as in, he loves the woman and hates her job. Kayley and Inara, although seemingly opposites, clearly share an affectionate friendship, in part because they are two out of three women on a ship full of Manly Men, and in part precisely because they are opposites: each woman sees in each other relief from the day-to-day reality of their lives. Inara provides vicarious excitement for Kayley and Kayley has the innocence that Inara lost long ago.
And, sure the costumes help, but even if this were a radio play, I think we would very quickly see who these characters are—in themselves and to each other—and why we should care about them.