Austin is an ambitious screenwriter. He has accepted a cookie-cutter life for himself: he has a family, a house, a producer. He knows his place in the world. As True West begins Austin is doing a little "research" for a screenplay he is writing, too bashful to admit that something he is working on might approach the level of art. He thinks of himself as a simple laborer, with a simple life and a simple family—until his brother, Lee, shows up in town. At the beginning of the play Austin and Lee maintain an affable, though slightly strained relationship. Austin is the straight man to Lee's comic relief. Austin is square and he knows it. However, there is a slow transformation in Austin's character that charts the evolution of the play as a whole. The failure of his movie deal makes Austin become more and more like his rambunctious brother, and eventually, the two effectively switch roles. Instead of the hardworking screenwriter, Austin actually becomes the drunken thief. Lying drunk on the floor, Austin screams at Lee while Lee is trying to write a screenplay. Austin also becomes obsessed with the idea of moving to the desert with Lee, as he is no longer able to take solace in his normal life. When Lee tries to go the desert without Austin, Austin strangles Lee with a phone cord, almost killing him. From a symbolic point of view, Austin can be seen as one half of the creative process. He is the methodical, diligent aspect, while and Lee is the creative, inspired side. Together they form the basic ingredients of an artist and together they are able to write the beginnings of a screenplay.
Lee is the play's representative of the Old West. He is a drunk, a thief, prone to acts of violence, and generally combative in most situations. Before the action of the play he spent a few months out on the desert with a fighting pit bull. However, Lee is also the comic center of the play. His nagging is a hilarious counterpoint to stuffy Austin. At first, Lee seems to exist only to make his brother's life a living hell. He refuses to let Austin get any work done, then demands the keys to Austin's car to make the rounds of their mother's neighborhood to check out the houses he intends to rob. Furthermore, the physical threat Lee represents becomes evident when he suddenly lunges at Austin during an argument about their father near the beginning of the play. From that point forward there is almost an electric tension of the threat of further physical violence.
Lee is not only a physical threat to Austin, however. He also weasels his way into a movie deal with Austin's producer, and actually manages to pull the rug out from under Austin's project. Lee pulls this off through a bit of gambling on the golf course with the producer. After he seals the movie deal Lee begins to pull another coup, becoming more and more like his brother Austin. Night finds Lee sitting at the kitchen table pecking away at the typewriter with one finger, while Austin pesters Lee just as Lee had done to Austin. Eventually, however, Lee regresses, realizing that the respectable life is not the one for him. His decision to go back to the desert is not a surprising one. Lee is the most constantly surprising and vivid characters in the play, and the catalyst for most the action and the laugh track as well.
Saul Kimmer cannot be said to be a real character as much as a plot device. He is your typical Hollywood producer: slick and manipulative, he will promise whatever is necessary to get his way. He conveniently makes house calls and breaks up the otherwise two-person drama. Saul's machinations with Lee about producing his movie rather than Austin's are at the heart of the play's plot, and without it the play would not reach its frenzied ending. Although Saul is mostly a plot device, he seems to be genuinely taken with Lee, whose outlandish behavior is foreign to the homogeneity of Hollywood.
Though a minor character, Mom's entrance into the degenerated kitchen in scene nine serves as one of the great comic entrances. Unfortunately for Mama, she is completely powerless over her boys, even when she is on the scene. The old man, though out in the desert and never appearing in the play, exerts a much more profound influence over the brothers than Mom does even when she is present in the destroyed kitchen. Mom is also the only absurd character in an otherwise highly stylized and mostly realistic play. She thinks that Picasso is coming to town and that she and the boys should go to see him. She has come back from Alaska because she missed her houseplants. She retreats to a motel, unable to cope with the family situation unfolding in front of her.
Although he never appears onstage, the "old man" excerpts a powerful influence over the entire play. Indeed, a case can be made that he is the most important character in True West, as the boys talk and fight about him throughout. Skirmishes over how to regard the old man drive the action of the play. Lee is generally much more sympathetic to the old man than Austin, as he wants to make money writing screenplays so that he can help the old man out of his financial worries. Austin, on the other hand, proclaims that the old man is of "a different ilk" and will "never change." Nevertheless, the old man plays on both of the brothers' imaginations. They both have his genes, habits, and inclinations, and feel the need to escape the traps of modern life and move out to the desert, just as he has.