Supporting characters serve a lot of functions in films and TV, and, when approached properly, they enhance and burnish the overall impact of visual storytelling. Let’s take a look at some of the key functions of supporting characters in scripts:
Throwing Obstacles in the Protagonist’s Path
Let’s get clear from the start: we have to keep supporting characters and antagonists separate. Every antagonist is technically a supporting character in that they are secondary to the protagonist, but an antagonist’s function in the story remains as the main force that is keeping the protagonist from their goals. As such, defining Hannibal Lecter, Black Panther’s Killmonger or Heath Ledger’s Joker as supporting characters ignores their true function.
This does not mean that other supporting characters cannot have the job of keeping the protagonist on their toes. They do. They challenge the main character and force them to grow.
In Noah Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for Marriage Story, Charlie (Adam Driver)’s first attempt at hiring a lawyer to represent him in his divorce from Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) brings him to the low-rent, endearingly avuncular and direct Bert Spitz (played by Alan Alda). With one tiny and hilarious exchange, Bert’s effectiveness as an obstacle for Charlie hits home and reveals his more fully realized use of a supporting character’s dynamic:
BERT: Listen, if I were representing you–
CHARLIE: You are representing me.
In this one moment, we feel that Charlie could really be in trouble. Bert is a nice guy, he eats his packed lunch in the office, he’s no-nonsense, he knows the system and has a sense of how to work it—but he’s detached. He represents what might (or might not) be a wrong decision for our protagonist and in so doing he becomes a terrific supporting character, especially in light of how Charlie will later be represented by the absolute opposite of the avuncular Bert—a shark, who brings with him his own set of problems.
In the Oscar-winning screenplay for Parasite by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, the layers of problem-creation for our main protagonists go literally deep (into a secret basement) and are given an even bigger jolt by the ironic twist that the main protagonists themselves are causing problems for others—and it comes back to bite them in the form of a major obstacle being thrown in their paths. When Ki-taek Kim and his economically-underclass wife and children systematically infiltrate the home of the wealthy Park family as a variety of employees, their scheming ejects the Parks’ long-time housekeeper Moon-gwang. What they (and we) don’t know is that Moon-gwang must get back into her former employers’ home because she has been hiding her loan-shark fleeing husband in the basement for years. So, just as the Kim family is deep into celebrating their complete usurping of the Park household, the return of Moon-gwang demanding re-entry sets off a major series of obstacles that not only keep Ki-taek and his brood from carrying off their subterfuge, but also highlight some of the script’s rich themes about hiding and economic inequality. (More on supporting characters helping along with themes later on.)
Guiding the Protagonist
The opposite of obstructions are those supporting characters who guide our protagonists along their paths of growth and change. Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi certainly fit that bill, each very directly giving philosophical lessons to their charges. Indeed, the fantasy/comic book genre is loaded with mentors and gurus. Cue Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But there are less grandiose examples of guidance in film stories. In the Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis screenplay for Groundhog Day, the arrogant and self-centered Phil (Bill Murray) slowly realizes that his only hope for escaping the ever-repeating day is to not only pursue his producer Rita (Andie McDowell), but to pursue her authentically, with real affection and not his usual lothario mentality. He even says to Rita, after two-and-a-half acts of behaving badly in order to try and break his curse, “I don’t deserve someone like you, but I swear, if I could, I would love you for the rest of my life.” Rita is his guide to this revelation simply by being herself—her selfless self—and modeling this non-selfish behavior for Phil to finally take in.
In Pixar’s Coco, written by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, the young protagonist Miguel Rivera has lived his life romanticizing Ernesto de la Cruz, the famous singer he thinks is his grandfather, and someone who did not care if his family remembered him as long as he became world-famous. When Miguel is able to enter the spirit world to meet his idol, he ends up being guided along on his journey of discovery by the spirit of his real grandfather, Hector, the musical genius de la Cruz killed in order to become famous. After earlier rejecting Hector as a crackpot, Miguel realizes he has been wrong about the ties that bind when he realizes that a photograph he held dear, with its male musician figure missing, was actually a photograph of Hector, his true blood relative.
Miguel: “They told me not to be like de la Cruz, but I didn’t listen . . . I told them I didn’t care if they remembered me….The faceless musician, “Is that you?”
Miguel: “WE’RE FAMILY!”
Having Their Own Arcs
Of course, it’s tremendously satisfying for readers and audiences to follow a supporting character that, like the protagonist, is on a path of change. Staying with Coco, we have Hector, who first appears as a hapless ragamuffin, but is later revealed to be not only a person of great significance in the protagonist’s life, but someone whose own goal is terribly moving in its own right. He does not want to be forgotten by his loved ones, and so needs Miguel to take his picture back to the land of the living and place it on the ofrenda, the altar of remembrance that families keep in honor of those who have crossed over. We are as fully invested in his quest as we are with Miguel’s.
Although more subtle, it’s interesting to take a look at the journey of supporting character Lee Iacocca in the Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller scripted Ford v Ferrari. Played by John Bernthal, this based-on-a-real-life character is a good example of how providing even the smallest throughline can add dimension to a person and add satisfaction for an audience. In the script, Lee has a tough time trying to bring the Ferrari company into the Ford fold, but at the same time, he provides counterpoint to the story’s antagonist, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) Ford senior VP and marketing man who is intent on bringing the story’s protagonists, driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to heel. It’s Lee who is, again, more subtly, but clearly depicted as being proud of the protagonists at the end, despite his loyalty to the company—he is more invested also in the antagonist being proved wrong, acting as an audience surrogate in a small but significant way.
Supporting characters can underscore a script’s themes in meaningful and sometimes profound ways.
In Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s slightly-longer titled novella, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), unjustly sentenced to life imprisonment, does his best to survive in the harsh realities of Shawshank. There, he befriends Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), a kindly, soft-tempered man who, in the course of the story, finally gets released after spending most of his life behind bars. Brooks, after releasing the baby bird he grew to love in confinement, cannot adjust to life outside the walls and commits suicide. This tragic and poignant action burnishes a theme underlying the story: the dehumanizing costs of life imprisonment, and the very fate that our protagonist must avoid at all costs.
In Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay for Joker, TV host Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), who publicly mocks Arthur Fleck (Best Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix) only to then have him on his show as a sick curiosity, drives home Joker’s themes of how the media creates alienation and disenfranchisement. The very things that motivate Arthur and make us relate, however unwillingly, to his anger.
Saying What the Protagonist Cannot
A protagonist in a screen story has the unpleasant duty of taking almost an entire film to come to the realization that will help them move on in life. As such, they are not (cannot) be in a position to wax knowledgably about where they are in their emotional growth. A protagonist cannot blurt out, “I sure am selfish and need to get over myself,” or “I sure am greedy and need to adjust my priorities.”
But a supporting character can. Supporting characters can come right out and state what is holding a character back because they are (usually) in a position of some intimacy and trust with the protagonist (or get there over the course of the story) and so can confront them with some harsh realities.
In George Gallo’s action/buddy comedy Midnight Run, Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is tasked with getting an embezzling mob accountant, The Duke (Charles Grodin), across the country to a bail bondsman. Buddy comedies often provide the classic paradigm for the effective supporting character: a mouthpiece who throws shade (and sheds light) on the shortcomings of our protagonist. Here, The Duke constantly needles Jack, prompting him to admit he’s been hurt by his relationship with his ex-wife, pushing him to face his closed-off and money-driven personality, and even diagnosing him with the reason for his ulcer: “Because you have two forms of expression—silence and rage.” Far too introspective a thing for a protagonist to say aloud, but perfectly fine for someone close to them to observe.
In the similarly-constructed Richard Wenk screenplay for 16 Blocks, sad-sack cop Jack Moseley (Bruce Willis) gets a dressing down from his sister Diane (Jenna Stern) an ambulance driver, after he has created a day’s worth of real-time havoc trying to do the right thing by a witness (Mos Def) who is being hunted by Jack’s corrupt colleagues. When asked what she told the police when questioned, Diane replies: “That we’ve barely spoken in two years. That you were a self-medicating, depressed individual. That you don’t care anymore. About anything or anyone.”
As it turns out, not only a dead-on description of the character, but exactly what the hero of the story needs to overcome.
One well-loved function of supporting characters is their role in providing diversionary sidebars that become memorable, sometimes even upstaging, aspects of the larger story. Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace-Moretz) from the Kick-Ass series (original film written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the Marvel comic), with her gleeful acts of violence and use of curse words, emerges as an almost dominant force in the stories. Rebel Wilson’s Amy from Pitch Perfect (screenplay by Kay Cannon from an article by Mickey Rapkin) was clearly a standout source of comic relief, as her character was used to greater extents in the subsequent films of the franchise.
Walking a delicate line in this category is Taika Waititi’s Adolph Hitler from JoJo Rabbit, the Oscar-winning adapted screenplay by Waititi from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. By making the notoriously evil figure an insecure buffoon, the screenplay allows the ironic distance necessary to create the story’s blending of tragedy and comedy.
Keep the Support Coming
However, you approach the development of your own supporting characters, thinking about how each character functions within the type of story you are telling will be invaluable in creating a fully-realized script that finds the right place for those who are in orbit around your protagonist.