Welcome to Industrial Scripts’ Truly Original Characters series, an ongoing sequence of articles examining the most original characters to appear in both TV and film. This article focusses on Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambit.
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What is an Original Character?
It’s a character that sticks with you even when they’re long gone from your screens. It’s a character that serves as a reference point in casual conversation or a character that sums up a behavior or generation.
“not the same as anything or anyone else and therefore special and interesting…”— from The Cambridge English Dictionary
Most importantly, in screenplay terms, an original character is a character that shines through in spite of any other weaknesses within that screenplay.
For a Screenplay Reader or Development Executive, an original character is an element of a script that stands out. No matter how busy they are or no matter how much work other elements of the script need, the original characters steal the show.
Great characters are at the very heart of great screenwriting and original characters can help elevate great to superlative.
Whether plucked from real life, an amalgamation of real people or just simply a genius stroke of creativity, these are original characters…
*The following article contains spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit*
Who is Beth Harmon?
Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, an American chess prodigy in the 1960s, is the protagonist of The Queen’s Gambit. She is a genius, extraordinarily complex and the heroine of the series.
Tragically becoming an orphan at eight years old after being in a car crash that killed her mother, with her father unknown, Beth Harmon is placed in Methuen Home – an all-girls Christian orphanage.
Harmon gets her first taste of addiction when she is given tranquillisers whilst in the orphanage. However, it’s also the place where her talent for chess comes to the fore. Her traumatising time in the orphanage juxtaposes the potential she has in life. For example, the orphanage janitor is the one that teaches her the game of chess and her potential for it immediately shines.
As her talent quickly grows in the male-dominated world of chess, Harmon aims to become a Grandmaster.
Being adopted by Mr and Mrs Wheatley allows Harmon to get out of the orphanage and pursue her love for chess in the real world. However, Mr Wheatley turns his back on his newly formed family, leaving Mrs Wheatley and Beth Harmon on their own. Harmon and her adoptive mother start to slowly form a deeper emotional connection.
What Makes Beth Harmon an Original Character?
Though Beth Harmon is fictional, there is an essence of reality as the character is inspired by a combination of real chess prodigies, such as Diana Lanni and Bobby Fischer. This inspiration allows audiences to see a glimmer of realness.
- Beth Harmon’s history of being orphaned, dealing with substance abuse and an unimaginable amount of grief creates a complex and multi-dimensional character.
- She has layers to who she is, layers that have been created by her life circumstances.
- Because of this, she’s a character that cuts a distinct figure, with her mix of flaws, skills and profound backstory.
In addition, Harmon presents an unusual heroine when it comes to female characters on-screen. With her trauma, substance abuse and being fearless with love, Harmon has the traits, instead, of many classic male protagonists. This gives Harmon an edge and originality, distinct from many poorly drawn heroines. She has her own struggles, yet in many ways, these feed her success.
Furthermore, her backstory and the way she copes with it through substance abuse raises the stakes. This is what makes her a great character and the series in general so compelling. Beth’s presence significantly raises the stakes of a relatively static game (chess). Losing a game is not just losing a game, it’s a potential tip over the knife-edge that Beth lives on.
Her appearance accentuates her uniqueness too, with an eye-catching style and overall image. Her eccentric style is used to portray her mood and thoughts and her striking fiery ginger cropped haircut adds to the unique figure she cuts on screen.
Creating a multi-dimensional character is not an easy craft. Characters need to go beyond a single purpose driven by the plot. There needs to be layers in order to generate a multi-dimensional feel. These layers can include how characters act, interact with others and why they do what they do.
In order to create a character that truly fascinates audiences, writers need to be able to scratch beneath the surface of character’s personalities and mannerisms. Multi-dimensional characters will have different angles to them. And these angles typically involve some form of profound inner conflict.
Throughout the series, Harmon is seen to have inner conflict via her relationships with others, addictions and outsider status. We are open to assume reasons for the way she acts, whether that’s because of her mother’s death, her experience as an orphan, her experience at school or being a young woman in a male-dominated world.
In short, nothing is ever easy for Beth, despite her obvious talent and success. This is what makes for rich characters. If we get the sense that things are easy for the protagonist, then it’s easy to lose interest.
The struggles and what lies beneath glossy images of success are what make characters engaging. There always has to be some root cause of the character’s complex personality. And this is exactly the case with Beth Harmon.
Beth Harmon’s Relationships
Beth is known for rarely connecting with people on a deeper or emotional level. However, when she does there is a lot to say about the relationship and how it shapes her.
These relationships Beth has are integral for her character and who she becomes…
Mr Shaibel and Beth Harmon
Beth Harmon meets Mr Shaibel at the orphanage when she is just eight years old. With not many people she can rely on in her life at that moment, Beth becomes intrigued by Shaibel’s chess playing.
Shaibel teaches Beth how to play chess, making him important to her story.
- Their relationship is as close to a father-daughter relationship as Beth would ever get.
- With her biological father unknown and her adoptive father abandoning her and Mrs Wheatley, Shaibel acts as a supportive father figure for Beth.
- Shaibel even provides Beth with the means to take part in her first tournament.
Both Beth and Shaibel care for each other, even though Beth does not visit Shaibel or repay him for the entry fee for her first tournament. Shaibel is obviously proud of Beth, shown through his pinboard full of newspaper clippings of her chess successes.
Beth always reiterates just how much Shaibel meant to her. When she finds out about Shaibel’s death, her grieving finally brings her true feelings about him to the surface.
Townes and Beth Harmon
D. L. Townes is a keen chess player, journalist, photographer and Beth Harmon’s teenage crush. Meeting at her first chess tournament, they develop a complex friendship that follows them for life.
Throughout The Queen’s Gambit, Beth develops several close relationships – mainly with men due to the nature of the game – but Townes is one of the strongest. Becoming friends when Beth is just a teenager, Townes is one of the most consistent and dependable male figures in Beth’s life.
Their intense and mutual attraction to each other is what causes the complexity of their relationship.
- Beth sees Townes as the perfect romance that is always just out of reach.
- Townes recognises Beth’s potential when they first meet, despite her young age and gender.
- It’s this recognition that Beth appreciates after being laughed at by other men at the tournament.
However, it seems that Beth and Townes are actually better off as friends. After coming close to kissing each other, when Beth lets go of her romantic feelings, their relationship becomes healthier and growth occurs in both of them.
Benny Watts and Beth Harmon
Benny Watts is Beth Harmon’s closest relationship to that of a soulmate. Both are American chess prodigies, though Benny is more arrogant by nature. Both are somewhat isolated by their genius and can relate to one another on a different level than others. Whenever they are together, the world doesn’t feel quite so lonely.
Benny and Beth’s relationship is complicated but flourishes from their competitive nature to win.
- Benny is Beth’s first professional loss. This makes their relationship pivotal as Beth is presented with her biggest fear.
- When they meet again Beth beats Benny, intensifying his fascination with her.
- Inviting Beth to New York, Benny mentors and trains her for her next big tournament in Paris.
- During their time together in New York, they begin a sexual relationship. This starts the breakdown of their friendship.
- Feeling like Benny only sees her for her chess potential, rather than for herself and her feelings, Beth doesn’t return to Benny after her defeat against Russian Grandmaster Borgov.
- Benny sees this as rejection as Beth chooses to be alone and drunk over being with him. This then causes him to reject Beth’s offer to join her in Russia.
Over their ups and downs along the way, Benny and Beth create a friendship that’s about complicated love and learning. Bettering themselves, sharing their obsession and thriving on the potential of winning is what their relationship is all about.
They are characters that are almost too similar to work as a harmonious couple. But this competitiveness is what makes their relationship interesting, as well as furthering Beth’s complexity.
Beth Harmon’s Journey and Character Arc
Beth goes through multiple challenges over the series, all of which inevitably shape her character. These challenges are exacerbated by her biggest challenge: substance abuse. If a challenge is too painful to deal with Beth turns to substance abuse through tranquillisers or alcohol.
- To deal with the death of her birth mother she becomes addicted to tranquillisers, aided by the orphanage.
- After her adoptive father abandoning her and Alma Wheatley, Beth turns to tranquillisers as soon as she can get her hands on them through Alma’s prescriptions.
- Upon Alma Wheatley’s death, her adoptive father backing out of their deal on the house and Harry Beltik’s phone call, Beth slides into an alcohol-fuelled bender.
- One of Beth’s biggest weaknesses is her extreme desire for perfectionism. When she loses a chess match, Beth falls into a downward spiral of self-destruction.
Beth Harmon’s character is an independent, young female genius who thrives on competition. However, she carries demons that can sidetrack her from her potential. From episode one to the finale, Harmon’s growth and journey is evident in how she carries herself.
The yo-yo nature of Beth’s character arc is what makes her so interesting. Success does not bring harmony. There is something deeper driving her which cannot be fulfilled and which substance abuse takes the place of.
And this is what makes us continue watching, the extent to which Beth is continually trying to fill an inner problem. It’s an inner problem we want to see resolved and this is what gives the series continuing potential. The series could go on forever as long as Beth still hasn’t solved her destructive inner conflict.
Beth’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Beth Harmon has many strengths which her journey helps develop, including self-confidence, resilience, persistence and dedication. And this draws us to her.
- Beth rarely doubts herself or her abilities. Her self-confidence comes from the female empowerment she exudes. Being surrounded by men does not phase her and knowing where her talent for chess can take her only adds to this confident outer shell.
- Beth’s life presents her with many challenging times and she relies on drugs and alcohol to help her through. By the end of the series, Beth wins her most important game of chess sober. She has learnt how to calm her thoughts by herself. This resilience comes from the journey she has gone on throughout the series.
- Persistence is key to Beth’s success in life and chess. She never gives up on something, even if it isn’t necessarily natural to her. This strength helps her shape her to become the person she wants to be.
- Beth’s dedication to being the best is honourable and admirable and it drives her to her success.
Weakness As Strength
Among her strengths, Beth has to deal with many weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses cross over in the challenges she comes across. For example, her extreme perfectionism and competitive nature turns into punishment if she loses a match of chess.
Again, this helps raise the stakes. Her weakness in giving herself a hard time upon losing makes losing a dangerous prospect. The drama would not be the same if she was a good loser.
Another key weakness Beth possesses is the coldness she can have towards others. She finds it hard to connect with people and open up to them. Instead, she can be quite closed off, preferring to be independent and self-reliant. There are only a handful of characters that Beth genuinely opens up to and even then, it’s not straightforward or instantaneous.
- This elusiveness is another reason why she is such an engaging and alluring character.
- Simply put, she makes us work to get to know her more. And this is what makes a strong character.
- When crafting an original character, you have to make sure there is something for the audience to work on.
- This doesn’t have to mean the character is closed off like Beth. But it does mean there has to be elusive layers for the audience to try and unravel.
This is particularly true of TV. More work for the audience to do means longer engagement in the series. It’s a cliffhanger in this sense, the drama always keeping the audience on their toes and wanting more from the character.
Beth Harmon captured the hearts and fascination of many viewers of The Queen’s Gambit. A limited series about a chess prodigy in America during the 1960s may not sound extraordinary. However, Beth Harmon provides an unusual spin to a slow and quiet game.
With her tragic past and inner demons from a young age, Harmon’s character seems unique and original in the context of the chess world.
- For Beth Harmon, being a female in a male-dominated world is not a disadvantage. She thrives on proving that women can be just as successful. She especially does this by beating men older than her at an impressively young age.
- Going through an unusual amount of grief at a young age shapes her unique character. She has to figure out how to deal with it on her own.
- Beth is a unique woman, with a unique talent in unique situations. Physically defining her uniqueness is her style, which develops as she grows. Her fiery ginger cropped hairstyle and interesting fashion sense add to her character. It all makes her stand out from the crowd.
In this, Beth Harmon provides an original character that we cannot get enough of. She delivers an exciting and intriguing aspect to a game of chess. In a game that is slow and traditional, Beth brings more than a dash of the unconventional.
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This article was written by Georgie Watts and edited by IS staff.
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