by Ann Marie Williams
In Nancy Meyers’ movie The Holiday, Eli Wallach’s character, Arthur Abbott, tells Kate Winslet’s character: “Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.”
If this line weren’t splendid enough, Iris replies: “You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake!”
I love this exchange because, besides it raising the question if we ourselves are living our lives as the leads in our own stories, the exchange raises some great considerations for writers. Why is there a distinction between the “lead” and the “best friend”? And how does that effect how we craft those characters?
Supporting Characters are Not Protagonists
The protagonist is the center of the story. Because of this, harsh as it sounds, basically every other character in the story should exist to somehow help illustrate your protagonist’s arc.
Whether that supporting character helps propel the plot, or reveals something about the protagonist’s personality (or, ideally, both), supporting characters exist, at their core, to support the protagonist and his or her story.
However, it’s incredibly important to weave supporting characters into the story in a realistic way — to make sure they come across as more than just a writing tool.
Supporting Characters are Their Own Protagonists
If I think about my favorite stories, they each contain — not just a great protagonist — but a fantastic, well-rounded, fully realized cast of supporting characters. I feel I know Ron and Hermione just as well as I do Harry Potter. Bones and Spock are just as iconic as Kirk. And John Watson is a wonderfully memorable character, even when paired with someone as vivid as Sherlock Holmes.
I always get the sense that the story at hand could be told from the supporting character’s point of view.
It’s like the concept, “Villains consider themselves the heroes of their own stories.” Ideally, this concept should be applied to each supporting character. Every character should have their own motivations and goals, their own fears and hopes… it should feel like the supporting characters have detailed lives that occur off the screen or page, even though the audience isn’t always privy to those lives.
I think it adds so much more to a story when the supporting characters (or the main supporting characters, at least) have their own arcs, their own moment of trial, and their own moment of triumph.
And that’s a delicate line to draw: to give supporting characters enough to do without taking away from the protagonist. But, the more an audience cares about the supporting characters, the more invested they will be in the story as a whole. And, the more realized the supporting characters, the more we learn about the protagonist by their interactions with, and decisions regarding, those supporting characters.
So, what’s the difference between supporting characters and leading characters? My analysis? Everything and nothing. Characters should be fully-realized, should have arcs, and should affect the plot — whether they are the protagonist, the antagonist, or the main supporting characters. However, the supporting characters shouldn’t ever take away from the protagonist. Instead, the supporting characters and their actions should, ultimately, serve to showcase themselves and the protagonist.
In other words, even though supporting characters exist to support the protagonist, they should be written as if they are the leads of their own lives.