Supporting Characters: Adding unity and evoking emotion

The Avengers

What characters do you care about? I mean, really. When was the last time you cried for a character in a book or a movie or a television show?

Most recently for me, unsurprisingly, it was during an episode of Stargate Atlantis. This isn’t surprising because I’ve been rewatching the whole series recently, introducing my best friend to them.

There’s a particular fifth-season episode called “The Shrine” where one of the main characters is infected with an alien parasite that mimics the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. It’s a very moving episode, and while I was affected emotionally by the storyline, it was a side character (of a sort) who actually brought me to tears. It was in a scene where the stoic Mr. Woolsey shares a memory of his father, who was dealing with Alzheimer’s. The memory is brief, practical, to the point. That’s how Mr. Woolsey communicates, after all. But the emotion of the scene is so real, and Robert Picardo’s presentation of the character feels so true, that I couldn’t help but tear up, thinking about my own grandfather who died a few years ago from the same disease.

I wrote a series some time ago about how to evoke emotion in storytelling, and one of the most effective methods is to write about an emotional moment you have experienced. Because others who have experienced the same thing will identify with you. What this scene in this episode of Stargate Atlantis did was to integrate an emotional moment into a character, and so I not only identified with the story itself, I also identified with the character of Richard Woolsey … who is someone I never thought I would share anything in common with.

And who didn’t cry when Professor Snape killed Professor Dumbledore? Oddly enough, though, I didn’t cry for Professor Dumbledore. I was sad, yes. But I’d already put the pieces together about why Snape had done it; my tears were more for him and for everything he had to sacrifice (in the past and in the future) to do the right thing.

What characters make you laugh? I’ve blogged about Janet Evanovich’s clumsy hellion Stephanie Plum, and she’s a great example of a character to read whenever you’re feeling blue. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series is another good one, mainly because the Percy Jackson character has such a great sense of humor.

What characters make you want to cheer? The underdogs. The champions. The little guys who overcome enormous, impossible odds to save the day! Jack Bauer. John McClane. Ellen Ripley. Jack Ryan. Hermione Grainger. Frodo Baggins. They started out small, living insignificant lives or at least less significant lives, and when life blew up in their faces, they rose to the challenge and did what they had to do to survive. We cheer when they win (and when they chop people’s heads off with hack saws) and we stare in complete shock when they fall (or when they decide it’s better to wear the ring than throw it in the pit of bubbling lava).

So … where does that leave us? Obviously these characters exist, and in some cases, they’ve made up large portions of my adolescence. How do we take the things we love about the characters we know and leverage that knowledge to infuse our own characters with the same qualities?

I’m struggling with character right now. I’m trying to find the balance between epic and funny, hardcore and sympathetic, just-minded and lovable.

Best example I’ve ever seen in my life (so far) is The Avengers, the new movie Marvel just released under the guidance and direction of the legendary Joss Whedon. If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it. It’s satisfying on every level, and it’s a great story to boot. Even if you don’t like “comic book movies,” you’ll still love it. The characterization is masterful. There are so many characters in this movie, you’d think it would be difficult to keep track of them all. But Whedon is so good at what he does, you never once get lost, and you don’t feel like any of them lose screen time. And I’m trying to figure out how he did it.

Yes, writing for movies is different than writing for fiction. But I think there are lessons that can be learned in spite of the differences.

The number one thing that stands out to me is the fact that Whedon concentrated on getting the characters right.

He didn’t try to cram too much story in. He didn’t try to make the plot too complicated. Actually, the plot is fairly simple. There’s no major earth shattering, ground breaking twists (there’s enough earth shattering and ground breaking when the Hulk ramps up). The plot is straightforward. Bad guys take something that doesn’t belong to them. Good guys are outmatched, so they call the Avengers. The Avengers don’t get along, but they figure out a way to survive. They stop the bad guys, though not without a lot of collateral damage AND enough explosions to make Michael Bay proud.

When you get right down to it, Avengers is about character. It’s a bunch of people who don’t belong in the same room together, let alone starring in the same movie together. How on earth did Whedon do it? One character in the movie makes a statement that the Avengers aren’t a team, that they’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos. He calls them a time bomb.

So how to do you take that many characters with that many flaws and put them into one movie and still get everyone to love them? The answer? You let them be who they are … but you keep them united under a single purpose.

Tony Stark is a self-absorbed, narcissistic, spoiled brat (he’s my favorite, in case you care), but he doesn’t want to world to end anymore than Thor does. Thor, the high-and-mighty demi-god with an attitude and a chip on his shoulder, wants to keep earth safe for a number of his own reasons. The same goes for Captain America, the boy scout, and Dr. Bruce Banner, along with his big, green alter-ego.

The point? These four people are isolated, lone wolf types. They are unbalanced and dangerous on a good day. And when you put them all together, they would normally take out their frustrations on each other. But when you put them together and give them a task that threatens something they all care about as a whole, they will put aside their differences and work together.

The story has to be bigger than the characters are, to a certain extent. That’s how you get them to work together. But if you want your readers to love them? … You need supporting characters.

And the main supporting character in the Avengers movie is SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson. He has a relationship with all of the Avengers. He’s the glue that holds them together, the geeky, nerdy, awkward guy who none of them really know what to do with. He humanizes Nick Fury. He smooths out Tony Stark’s sharp edges and calms Thor’s concerns about Jane Foster.

If not for Phil Coulson, the Avengers storyline would have a hard time getting off the ground. But that’s just my opinion.

So, how does that translate into our own work?

Tony Stark, Thor, Bruce Banner, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton are the main focus of the Avengers movie. Phil Coulson is the one in the background reminding them all to work together.

That isn’t a copyrighted concept. It’s a character device.

If you are having trouble getting your main characters to mesh, throw in a supporting character who reminds them why they need to work together.

If it worked for the Avengers, it can work for you too.

And don’t just make your supporting character a stock character. You can, but you’re missing out on so much potential.

Create a supporting character that brings out the humanity in your main character. He needs to be a character that shows us that the protagonist feels. And when we can see – really see – that the protagonist feels or experiences the same emotions that we do, that’s when we will love the protagonist, whether they’re as unlovable as Tony Stark (my personal favorite, by the way) or as funny at Stephanie Plum.

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