Oh, the poor supporting character.
The best friend. The lab assistant. The cab driver. The sex gimp.
How shitty they must feel, you know? “Hey, we’re all blocks of flesh in the storytelling pyramid, meant to uphold the protagonist. Hey, pass me another bucket of plot, willya? I’m getting dry. What’s that? The antagonist stole the bucket of plot and pissed in it? We don’t have to… wait, we have to drink it? We have to drink it. … Goddamnit.”
Somewhere in here I’m envisioning a human centipede thing, except in pyramid shape and…
No. Nope. Hunh-hunh. Not going there.
You might think, hey, that’s the ideal usage for a support character. To support the characters, the plot, and the story. Maybe to uphold theme, too, or contribute to mood. And all of that is technically reasonable and not entirely untrue, but looking at it that way runs the risk of coloring your view of all characters as being no more than mere pulleys, gears and flywheels whose only purpose is to mechanize the plot you’ve created. (You ever see the ingredient mechanically-separated meat? It’s something like that, where you envision all the characters as avatars of plot diced up and separated out.)
Characters aren’t architecture, though.
Characters are architects.
Your protagonist and antagonist tend to be grand architects — they’re the ones making the big plans. They’re building — or demolishing — whole buildings. They are the demigods of this place. Creators. Destroyers. Sometimes each a bit of both.
But supporting characters are architects, too. They’re just architects of lesser scale. They work on individual floor designs. They’re hanging art. Moving light switches. Picking paint colors.
They’re not merely ants in the hill. They aren’t automatons. They have wants and needs. Wishes and fears. They have good days and bad days. And all that affects the design. (The design is analogous to our plot, by the by.) Dave’s had a real fuckball of a day (wife left him, dog shit in the blender, his television came alive and tried to eat him) and so he’s distracted and angry. He’ll screw up the light switch so that it turns on the jacuzzi, instead. He’ll pick an angry paint color. By the end of the day he’s just kicking holes in drywall.
Dave is a supporting character.
Dave might be peripherally aware of his supporting nature in the sense he realizes that he’s not the Grand Architect, but just the same, Dave’s story is his own. He’s not really thinking about his role as being lesser in a narrative sense. Dave is the protagonist of his own story. Dave is the beleaguered hero of his own world’s mythology.
What that means is…
All Characters Think They’re The Protagonist
So when we ask ourselves, how do we conceive of and create great supporting characters, that’s our first lesson: supporting characters don’t necessarily know they’re supporting characters in the story going on around them. We are, as people, just slightly Narcissistic, just left of solipsistic, and so it is that we are the focal points of the world. We’re the pilots of our own existence and so it’s tempting to believe that all things revolve around us rather than us being just another celestial object caught in the orbit of something far larger, far weirder.
Look at it this way:
You go to run errands. You need to pick up the usual — milk, bread, broccoli, hamburgers, cigarettes, peyote buttons, the dry-cleaned giant rabbit costume, a birthday cake, 9mm ammo, a hang glider, nipple salve, orange juice. While out on your errands, you encounter dozens of other people, and its tempting to kind of expect and accept that they’re all in this world to do your bidding, but that’s the viewpoint of a psychopath — and so a moment’s additional thought allows you to realize, oh, hey, these are all people with lives as deep and complex as my own.
Each person you encounter is an iceberg — a peak seen above water, but so much submerged.
Every Character Is A Rabbit Hole
We don’t always fall down each character’s rabbit hole, but in a good story we are afforded at least a glimpse. And it’s in these glimpses that many of our supporting characters exist — the audience should be granted a peek now and again into each character’s heart and mind to see the complexity that lurks there. It’s like peering into the mechanics of a pocketwatch — you don’t need to know how it works to see, quite plainly, that it’s all very complex. A fully-realized machine, not just artifice, and yes, good, fine, you can cover that up again and go take a nap.
With those things in mind –
It’s time to noodle on how to create a kick-ass supporting character.
First, a little homework. HA HA HA I’M MAKING YOU DO HOMEWORK. Ahem. Sorry.
Read this: the Zero-Fuckery Guide to Creating Kick-Ass Characters.
Then, I want you to take a supporting character through those steps. Logline → Problem → Solution → Conflict → Limitations → Complications and you can stop there, for now.
You can do this with one of your own characters, of course, but you might also want to take a supporting character from a beloved property and apply it — a property like, sayyy, hmm, oh, I dunno, DIE HARD? Why DIE HARD? Because DIE HARD. It is its own answer. So shut up.
Let’s take Sergeant Al Powell.
Reginald VelJohnson, baby.
He’s a nearly perfect supporting character because he supports the protagonist and plot and yetalso manages to be a rabbit hole — when we gaze into his hole (er, okay, that sounds weird, so let’s rewrite that as, when we look hard at his story), we see a fully-realized character.
You might say his logline is, “Desk jockey cop just wants to buy Twinkies and go home to his pregnant wife but is drawn into a hostage situation at Nakatomi Plaza.”
In that, you’ll find one problem: “Wants to go home, but can’t because of McClane / Gruber deathmatch,” and you’ll find that his solution is, “Stay and provide backup,” which generates a little conflict in that he’s now in mortal peril, thus casting some doubt on whether Powell will survive long enough to see the eventual birth of his child.
But that’s really a plot problem and you might find a more interesting character problem at the heart of Powell: he once shot and killed a kid and the solution appears to be to remain relegated to a desk. Which makes Powell’s conflict more interesting — it ties the problem to the overall plot conflict (his ability to be effective in crisis is in doubt), draws another nice line to his current situation (he once killed a kid but is now having his own child) and also ties perfectly to the second climax of the piece: where snarling hair model Karl emerges from the building looking like hamburger-in-a-wig and Al has to use his gun to save the day (VIOLENCE FIXES EVERYTHING).
In here we see his limitations: he’s a big man, probably out of shape, no time on the range, no time being “real police” lately. And complications mount, too: first he’s harangued by his superior (who doubts the entire John McClane narrative), then he’s gotta deal with an aggressive police department and an even more aggressive FBI.
How Characters Create Plot
Characters do things, and say stuff.
And that’s how they create plot.
Sounds stupid and, at that level, it is. Still — we like to imagine plot as this external thing (exoskeleton) when really it’s all internal to the characters (skeleton). Characters are why we come to the story in the first place, after all, otherwise we’re just reading an IKEA instruction manual. I mean, jeez, even textbooks use human beings in their examples.
Plot is just the result of characters being characters.
Example: imagine that Miranda wants to buy Monkey Chow for her pet monkey, Mister Jigglejugs, and so she goes to the store to buy Monkey Chow. Easy. A straight line. She’s created a plot — it’s a fucking boring plot, though, so let’s safely assume that she is not actually alone in this universewith her plucky helper monkey, and instead let’s imagine that as she’s heading to the store a car crashes into the store just before she gets there.
This event isn’t random. The car isn’t flung there by the hand of the Plot Lords. Someone’s driving. A character with, you know, all the character traits intrinsic to the role. In this case the driver — who we’ll call Booboo — is a raging Cheetos addict and he’s all high as shit on Cheeto Dust and he’s frantically trying to pick a loose Cheeto out of his crotch area when he suddenly looks up and – wham — he crashes his Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight into the Monkey Chow store.
Booboo’s problem (crotch-Cheeto) collides quite literally with Miranda’s problem (no more Monkey Chow). Their solutions collide, too (pick Cheeto from crotch / go to fetch primate food).
If you wanna go back to Die Hard (AND WHY WOULD YOU NOT WANT THAT), it’s easy to see how the entirety of the plot isn’t some external event but is entirely orchestrated by the problems and solutions of a variety of characters. They have motivations and they act on them, but those actions and motivations are not necessarily in accord with one another. McClane is there for his wife, but that line of plot is broken by the actions of one Mister Hans Gruber. The actions taken by the protagonist (McClane) and the antagonist (Gruber) are shaped by the events of all the supportingcharacters — from Argyle and his limo to Powell and his Twinkies, all the way to the pair of lunatic FBI agents and to Rick Ducommun’s character turning off the power inside that manhole.
It’s like a series of magnets pushing and pulling on one another. A flock of birds — some pulling away from the flock, others pulling toward it. Gravity and antigravity, matter and anti-matter, a series of bouncy Superballs dropped from the top of a building, a pack of rabid orangutans given comically-large rubber mallets and loosed in a shopping mall –
Okay, I’ll stop.
To put this all a bit differently –
Parallel or Perpendicular?
The actions of a supporting character tend to be parallel to the plot (meaning, they support it, continue it, accelerate it) or perpendicular to it (meaning they block it, challenge it, or change its course). This can be clarified a bit by seeing how this relates to the motivations of a protagonist and antagonist. A character who tends to be parallel to the protagonist’s motivations will likely also run counter — meaning, perpendicular — to the antagonist’s scheme. (Characters don’t need to be one or the other, either; looking at a show like The Wire you’ll see characters who flip somewhat regularly.)
In Die Hard, Powell and Holly Genarro are roughly parallel to the plot.
The FBI fuckos and all the terrorists and even cokehead Ellis are perpendicular to it.
Not an exact science (none of this is meant to be), but compelling as a thought exercise.
Consider that every supporting character should appear for at least three beats in order to fulfill some kind of arc — even if it’s a subtle, small arc. A character that appears early on is best utilized again throughout the story, even if only in a minor way. These beats might be physical, tracking location and action. Or they might be intellectual and emotional, tracking that character’s change (growth/loss).
In Empire Strikes Back, Boba Fett gets three solid beats in the script:
a) the part where he shows up and Vader’s all like “NO DISINTEGRATIONS, BECAUSE JESUS WHAT IS IT WITH YOU AND ALL THE DISINTEGRATIONS”
b) he’s got his butt-plug-shaped spaceship and he’s flying around through space-trash
c) he takes the giant chocolate bar that is Han Solo, doing basically none of the actual hard work in terms of capturing the smuggler — actually that raises an interesting question because, it seems like Fett was working for Vader, but then we find out he’s also working for Jabba? Was he double-dipping? Paid twice for one job? BOBA FETT YOU CLEVER MOTHERFUCKER.
I mean, clever until the fourth beat in Return of the Jedi, where he’s basically reverse-pooped by a giant sand-encrused desert butthole. A sad ending, really.
You might also suggest that the supporting character’s level of existence be measured across three potential tiers of engagement/support with the story:
Tier #1: Essential and present to the story (ex: Powell in Die Hard)
Tier #2: Speaking role, ~three beats, probably still essential but not all that present (ex: Argyle in Die Hard)
Tier #3: Barely a speaking role, useless as a donkey with an iPhone (ex: the wasted Al Leong)
To Sum Up:
Supporting characters are real characters, just partially seen.
They have their own wants, needs, problems, solutions.
Their actions and dialogue create plot —
— particularly when pushing against those of other characters.
Try to give them three beats.
Consider how present and essential their engagement with the story.
Do not have them be reverse-pooped by a sandy space butthole.
THE END OKAY BYE
*disappears in a puff of Twinkies and Monkey Chow*
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