The Importance of Supporting Characters

Lisa Rosenberg October 13, 2009

Supporting characters, who back up the main character’s turns in the spotlight, are not simply lesser lights with second billing. They are often key sources of revelation in the story, unmasking aspects of personality, motivation and backstory that might otherwise have remained hidden. They can help expand the mystery of the story by showing us unseen forces that pull the main character in many directions, which will make that character’s choices and the story’s directions less predictable.

Supporting characters can shine light on the main character’s hidden humanity, offering hope or a dramatic turnaround where none seems possible. They can remind us why the journey of the main character is important, especially when that character is most troubled or lost.

By stating difficult truths the main character might not put words to, or exposing key elements of back story that the main character may have wished to leave in the past, supporting characters may provide essential information that can turn the direction of the narrative. They can also offer new perspectives on the story’s principal themes.

In the political thriller Dirty Pretty Things (2002, writer Steven Knight, director Stephen Frears), Okwe is an illegal Nigerian immigrant who drives a cab and clerks in a hotel while marking time in London after fleeing a disastrous past. The small supporting role of Guo Yi, a friend who works in a hospital morgue, provides both refuge to Okwe and invaluable insights into the many hidden aspects of his character. Through just a handful of scenes with Guo Yi in the film, we learn that Okwe is capable of humor, irony, strategy and keen insight, and that he has maintained his self-respect despite the harrowing conditions of his exile.

Because Guo Yi is the only friend Okwe completely trusts, Okwe comes to him when a troubling discovery at the hotel brings him to a moral precipice. Though he was a doctor in Nigeria and has always maintained a moral imperative, Okwe’s very survival in London depends on keeping his identity hidden and his profile low. But Guo Yi is the character whom Okwe presses to give him a reason to pursue the truth about the discovery. "I’m only asking you," Okwe says, "because you are a rational man."

Guo Yi refuses to advise him to investigate a crime that could cause Okwe’s undoing, saying, "You’re an illegal, Okwe. You have nothing. You ARE nothing." Because Guo Yi cannot give Okwe a rational explanation for the discovery at the hotel—instead, only advice to keep his head down because he has no power to influence events—Okwe is spurred to move forward with his investigation, immediately endangering his position and that of the Turkish immigrant maid, Senaye, he is falling in love with. Guo Yi’s words both echo a major theme of the story—“human beings disrespected and discarded as so much trash“—and inspire Okwe to combat the notion that a thinking man, regardless of how compromised his position is, has no power to shape events and save lives.

The dark comedy, Little Miss Sunshine (2006, writer Michael Arndt, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), features an ensemble cast with two leading roles and a wildly diverse crew of supporting characters, whose conflicts echo the central conflict and cast fresh light on the core themes. Without the perspectives of these supporting characters—all of them family members—the young female lead, Olive, would hardly have a chance against her dogmatic father in carving out necessary truths for her own life.

The story belongs most to Richard, the father whose strenuous efforts to sell a program of personal success have fallen flat, and Olive, his seven-year-old daughter, a child beauty contest aspirant whose earnest curiosity and innocent sweetness can’t overcome her plain looks and soft pot belly. Richard tells Olive, "There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers."

But her long-suffering mother, silently raging teenaged brother, suicidal uncle, and heroin-addicted grandfather travel down parallel lonely roads, trying to determine what is and isn’t success for themselves, largely through painful setbacks and failures.

Perhaps most resonant of the journeys of the lead characters are Olive’s uncle, Frank, and brother, Dwayne. Frank, the most important Proust scholar, whose unseemly involvement with a student has cost him his job and reputation, enters the story following a failed suicide attempt. But he quickly sees that his niece, Olive, is in danger of falling prey to her father’s definition of success, which is entirely dependent on approbation from others. Dwayne, nearly a year into a vow of silence until he can become an Air Force test pilot, learns that he won’t be accepted because he’s color blind.

Both characters support Olive in gradually more important way, quietly opposing her father’s influence on her, and finally joining her on stage in a decidedly un-beauty contest–like performance. But more important are the ways in which they support her character’s journey by example. The resolutions of their individual journeys affirm the resolutions of Olive’s and Richard’s journeys, and also mirror the cautionary message of the story.

Shortly before the big contest finale, Frank comes to realize that his hero, Proust, was a colossal failure in real-world terms, but still a tremendously important writer who became who he was through the suffering he lived through. In response to Dwayne’s wish to sleep through high school, avoiding all of the anticipated pain, Frank says, "If you sleep until you’re 18, think of all the suffering you’re going to miss."

Dwayne worried that Olive insists on competing against her heavily canned and coached fellow contestants, proclaims in turn, "Fuck beauty contests! Life is one beauty contest after another." He tells his uncle that he WILL learn to fly, “he’ll find a route to success on his own terms. Soon enough, Olive and finally, Richard will also learn to claim versions of success that they can own.

In the recently released drama, Amreeka (2009, writer/director Cherien Dabis), the main character, Muna, a Palestinian refugee and mother of a teenaged son, Fadi, is a glowing embodiment of positive thinking. Tormented by her husband’s desertion for a younger woman, and fed up with the ever-increasing restrictions on her and Fadi’s lives under the occupation, she comes to live with her sister’s family in the American Midwest and enrolls Fadi in high school there just as the Iraq War begins.

Troubles immediately ensue. All of Muna’s cash, stuffed in a tin of homemade cookies, disappears during an aggressive airport search. Despite her competent grasp of English and a decade of bookkeeping experience, she can’t find a comparable job at an American firm. And Fadi begins to experience increasingly pointed harassment at school.

The supporting character of Muna’s sister, Raghda, a dark, thin and haggard counterpart to Muna’s voluptuous heft and hopeful outlook, reminds her and the audience of all that both women have traded to make a life in the United States: the sights, smells, and tastes of home; close relatives, including their elderly mother and beloved brother; and a feeling of belonging. Though Raghda’s husband, a doctor, has done well financially in America, Raghda has never lost her homesickness, and has never felt she and her family quite fit in. With the war underway, her husband is losing patients left and right, they are barely able to pay their mortgage, and their marriage is foundering. Raghda wants to go home. Her husband wants to stick it out.

As Muna navigates the many land mines, hidden and obvious, in her new life—her plunging self-esteem when she takes a job at the local burger place, her inability to protect her son from provocations at school and an overall sense that she is still regarded as an unwelcome foreigner, just as she was in the occupied territories—Raghda’s increasing sense of displacement and despair becomes just one more, possibly insurmountable obstacle for Muna. She is the serious face of doubt in Muna’s mirror; she is exactly the hungry, angry, defeated woman that Muna could become.

When Muna in the end holds tightly to her hard-won sense of self-respect, encourages Raghda and her husband to support each other, and implores her son to remember his own value despite the hostility he faces, it is in the face of Raghda’s reminder that there are easier paths than standing and fighting. Because of Raghda’s challenge, Muna grows as a character to assume a quiet, ordinary heroism—not because she saves the world or even changes their new community, but because she asserts, one person at a time, that we all have a right to be here.

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