Supporting Characters: Are They More Important Than The Lead Roles?
In his novel Living a Life that Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner devotes an entire chapter to the concept of supporting characters in film, and by extension, the roles that we ourselves play in our day to day lives. He presents his lovely interpretation of the supporting role in the following paragraph:
I have always been intrigued by the supporting role category [of the Academy Awards]. I don’t know what it is like to direct a movie. I have no idea what goes into composing a musical score or designing the costumes. But I know the feeling – I suspect we all know the feeling – of being a supporting actor in other people’s movies, not being in the spotlight but doing things that shape and drive the plot… We are in the background, doing what we can to make things turn out well (126-7).
This is a terrific observation on the importance of supporting characters, both in real life and in reel life. Sadly, however, we all too often misunderstand what it means to be cast in such a role. If you ask someone what a supporting character is, chances are they won’t say, “They’re the ones who guide and help the main character.” The more likely answer would probably something akin to, “They’re second to the main character,” or even worse, “They’re the main character’s sidekick.” While these answers aren’t necessarily wrong, they are horribly dismissive and, moreover, disregard the vital part that supporting characters play in their respective stories.
Now, while I want to focus on the importance of supporting characters in film, it would feel unjust to say that important supporting characters exist only in film. For hundreds of years, well before cinema’s inception, the character of the loyal companion had been presented in numerous novels, plays, and ancient myths. Whether it’s Dr. John Watson in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Horatio in Hamlet, or Ariadne in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, supporting characters have shown up in dozens of works of fiction and have all served the purpose of helping out the main character. And it is this key characteristic of supporting characters that makes one wonder, are they more vital to the story than the lead characters? Sure, the central protagonist of any story is presented as being the sole victor, but does the victory belong solely to them? While at first glance one would think the answer is yes, it is ultimately a triumph that belongs to many people, not least of all those in the supporting roles.
In essence, the supporting characters in any work of fiction tend to serve three purposes: first, they stand by the hero both out of a sense of loyalty and also to provide them with security, often times when no one else will, and sometimes, when they themselves don’t want to. Second, they provide the hero with perspective. If the lead is doing something stupid or is contemplating doing something stupid, the supporting character will usually try to persuade them to take a different course of action that will likely be better for everyone involved. Lastly, in respect to what Rabbi Kushner said, supporting characters provide the audience with a relate-able point of view. At the end of the day, we usually aren’t caught up in some dramatic whirlwind that could change our lives; the more likely scenario, for most of us, is that we are caught up in someone elses’ whirlwind, and we take it upon ourselves to ensure them that everything will be okay. And for those times where we do find ourselves at the center of a tragic event, what we desire the most is to have someone there to lend a hand and to assure us that they will be by our side as we make our way through whatever trouble we’re in.
The impact of such characters is truly remarkable, and it’s sad that all too often, they aren’t given the credit that they fully deserve when it comes to their actions and the influence that they have in their stories. Take a quick look at the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke, Han, and Leia are almost always given the most praise when it comes to the movies, and in all fairness, they are the ones who ultimately defeat the Empire. But where would any of them be without Ben Kenobi? Had Ben been absent from these pictures, they would never have been made because there never would’ve been anyone there to spur Luke to join the Rebels and save the galaxy. Here’s just a short list of the things that would not have happened had Ben not existed: Leia would’ve never had anyone to go to as her only hope and thus the Rebel plans would’ve been discovered, Luke would’ve never left Tatooine and probably would’ve been killed with Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, the droids would’ve been caught and disassembled, and seeing as how no one hired him as a pilot, Han, and by extension Chewie, would probably have been hunted down and frozen in carbonite by Jabba much sooner. In essence, without that one integral part, the entire story breaks down.
Other, more contemporary, examples include Dr. King Schultz from Django Unchained and Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Both of these gents made it their mission to ensure that the main characters made it to their goals, even if it meant having to sacrifice their own lives (in King’s case, he did so with gusto and panache). While it can’t be argued that the final victory belongs to Django and Frodo, it ought to go without saying that neither of them would’ve ever achieved their victory had it not been for the help that they received from their companions.
Even still, it would be harsh to say that supporting characters aren’t given a measure of prestige for their efforts and the effect they’ve had in their movies. Alec Guinness, after all, was the only actor that was nominated for an Oscar for portraying a character in a Star Wars film, and Christoph Waltz deservedly won the Oscar for his role in Django Unchained. And though Sean Astin wasn’t nominated for his role, he’s still beloved by many fans of the films. Plus, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that many films and TV programs are placing a lot more emphasis on how important supporting characters are. HBO’s Game of Thrones is a show that is almost entirely built on supporting characters; while certain characters, like Jon Snow, Daenerys, and Arya are the leads in their respective storylines, neither of them is the shows’ main character. Hell, it’s gotten to the point where the supporting characters have supporting characters (e.g. Tyrion has Bronn and Pod). Then there’s AMC’s upcoming Better Call Saul which is a show that stars and revolves around the supporting character of completely different show. It really is nice to see that supporting characters are being given more emphasis in their stories, and therefore have a bigger chance of having an impact on those who experience them.
In the end, the only reason that supporting characters aren’t celebrated as much as main characters is that they ultimately aren’t the ones that we want to be. To support just sounds too dull; we don’t want to support, we want to do. And that is a totally natural impulse and one that shows the signs of a truly proactive person. But what we ought to realize is that to support someone is to do something. It is to ensure people that they are not alone, and that we will stand by them and show them that they truly matter. Sure there are times where we fancy ourselves the main characters of life’s movie, but there usually comes a time when that focus shifts onto the life of another. When a man gets married, he no longer considers himself the main character of his life; he sees himself as the supporting character of his wife’s. Others come to see themselves as important background characters in the lives of their dearest friends. That idea of sacrificing the spotlight (or at the very least, sharing it with someone else) is a very noble one, and it is the purest essence of a supporting character.
One of the taglines for Good Will Hunting (another film with a spectacular supporting character) is, “Some people can never believe in themselves, until someone believes in them.” And I think that is exactly what a good supporting character does; he isn’t center stage, but he’s the one who tells the main character where center stage is. In essence, the title of supporting character ought to be taken literally; they aren’t the main character’s lackeys, but the ones who provide a solid foundation for the main character; a place where the lead can be himself and live with the assurance that there is someone who loves them for who they are and will care for them no matter what. It is tempting to say that because these characters aren’t given the most emphasis in their stories then they aren’t as important, but if anything, they are what ultimately makes the story move forward and, moreover, they are the ones who lend the hero a shoulder to lean on.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I absolutely love this article! All your points are spot-on and your analysis is great. Why does everyone have to be a main character? Being normal is so underrated. This is a great piece. Awesome job!
I really appreciate your kind words Mary 🙂 I’m glad I was able to make the supporting role worthy of attention.
I immediately thought of Brienne in Game of Thrones as I was reading your article. I haven’t read the books, but in the show she’s intensely loyal and plays the supporting character role in many people’s lives. I hadn’t thought of supporting characters being important because people can relate to them but now that you’ve pointed it out, I can see the connection. Overall very well written article, I enjoyed it!
Thanks Emaloo. Game of Thrones is absolutely teeming with supporting characters, especially right now. I don’t want to ruin anything in case you or anyone else isn’t caught up but I think that some of the major players right now are Brienne, Pod, and the Hound even though they aren’t necessarily the main focus of the program. Thanks again for your kind words 🙂
I’m thinking ‘Danny’, from Withnail and I. He has only got two scenes and they’re both belters.
I have yet to see it, but I’ll take your word for it and keep my eye out for the guy. Based on how you described the fella, chances are I won’t miss him.
Writers must be careful that the supporting character is not too beloved, or you will just end up with what is known as Fan BackWash. This is a lot less creepy than how it sounds.
Never kill anyone the viewer doesn’t love. Or hate.
I think of it as the “Alien” rule. In Alien there are only seven characters and the loss of each one comes with a note of shock, or anger, or pity. Sometimes all three. In Alien 3, there are dozens of nameless characters that are dispatched in bulk. Their loss generates only yawns.
Don’t bother to hurt, or kill, a character who hasn’t been established well enough to generate some feeling in the viewer. You might as well be cutting the grass for all the interest it will generate. Worse, it will deflate the emotional impact of any violence that comes later.
That’s a good point about what happens when there are groups of supporting characters. For the most part, I was just talking about single supporting roles, but when there’s a group of them, a filmmaker ought to be wary of how much screen time they are devoting to them to ensure that the audience becomes emotionally invested in them. Along with the crew of the Nostromo in ‘Alien’, I was reminded of the squad in ‘Saving Private Ryan’; all of those guys got ample screen time so when they were killed in a battle, we felt sorrowful. Sure, they weren’t groundbreaking supporting characters but they were still worthy of our sympathy. Zon, Tony, thanks for your comments 🙂
I always look at Serenity as an excellent example of how to make this powerful.
Every Joss Whedon fan knows he likes to throw audiences off balance by killing off a popular supporting character (or even a main one). His genius in Serenity was to eliminate Book fairly early. It got the moment out of the way and put the audience at ease.
When he later killed Wash, it was not only a shockingly abrupt death, but completely blindsided the audience. Some people think it was senseless, but in reality Wash’s death served the important duty of telling the audience that NO ONE was safe for the remainder of the film. Instead of a climactic battle where you know the good guys win, you spend the battle wondering how many more of them might die.
I agree Gordon. That was a great, if painful, swerve on Whedon’s part. Thanks for the comment 🙂
A few things you’ll want to keep in mind, though:
1. How will that death affect the story line? I can see a situation where killing off the wrong person can force the story to ‘jump the shark’ to be able to continue. (What if Darth Vader’s damaged TIE had spiraled into the Death Star, rather than away from it?)
2. How will that death affect the characters that we are interested in? Will the death of the villain’s #1 henchman cause him to fly into an uncontrollable rage and become far more dangerous, or will it drive home the cost of his actions, and cause him to try to undo them?
3. Is the death believable? Not so much physically, but in term of motivation and effects. Is the location and/or type of death inconsistent with the character of the victim? (e.g. Someone of genuinely wholesome character being killed in a brothel in a drug deal gone wrong.) Has the character of the killer been developed enough that, even after the fact, the reader can admit that the killer had justification, even if only in his/her own mind? Do the other characters react to the death as you would expect them to? (Having them react unexpectedly is perfectly valid, if done for a clearly defined purpose.)
I have a Third Man theory that supports (ha!) this. You have the hero who brings the idea, the friend or companion of the hero who maybe adds reason to a rallying cry, and the third man is the one whose yell motivates the troops. It ain’t movin’ ’til the third man/woman/talking animal gets the action going.
Depending on the story, I may reduce that to just a second man. For example, to return to ‘Star Wars’, Ben Kenobi in a way acted as both the friend who rallied him to fight against the Empire and as the one who motivates the troops. It wasn’t until ‘Empire Strikes Back’ that Han began to fill the mold of the third man while Ben and Yoda kept the roles of the ones who motivate the main character. That isn’t to say that your theory doesn’t hold water though; in The Lord of the Rings, there is a very clear example of your idea at work. You have Frodo, who is the hero, Sam the companion, and then you have Gandalf who serves at the motivator. I concentrated mostly on Sam because I thought he had the most impact on Frodo’s story but, in truth, the whole trilogy is teeming with supporting characters. I appreciate your comment Cassie 🙂
I support your endeavor to elevate the supporting character (my personal favorite is Slim from Of Mice and Men), but do so wary of what happens when fans of a certain supporting character invest too much of themselves into him/her. What is “too much” is a tricky issue, but I think the line is drawn at spin-offs. I would argue that many proposed focuses on supporting characters threaten the almost mystical power those characters have to remain in fans’ minds. I look to one example you mention (Better Call Saul) as well as the potential upcoming Star Wars film focusing on Boba Fett as two risky endeavors. In both of those cases, the character is potent in the original work because of how little access we have to them. Something is left to the imagination, and when fans are not free to fill a certain void (created by the character’s inaccessibility) this supporting character becomes less intriguing.
You raise a great point. Although I have a fondness for supporting characters, there is always the risk that they will end up failing to fulfill the role they were cast in if they end up stealing the spotlight from the main characters. This is by no means a bad thing, but it does turn them into a lead instead of the support. I wonder if, to some degree, one of the reasons (amongst many) that fans disliked the ‘Star Wars’ prequels was because they demystified the characters of Obi-Wan and Anakin. While in the first trilogy, they were seen as mysterious figures who had endured through a lifetime of conflict and were forged into the characters they were. But by showing us how they became who they were, we lost, what you called, our ability to imagine who they were before. In regards to Better Call Saul, I can only hope that the showrunners have enough material to work with without undermining Breaking Bad. I’m hoping for the best though. Thanks for your comment Zico.
As an aspiring actor I believe it’s greatly important to hold stock in whatever role you may play, including that of supporting characters. As we all know, a supporting character could easily over-shadow that of the lead if the performance is done well.
Those who can perform these roles exceptionally well are also doing so at a sort of disadvantage in the eyes of fans. As you said, we want to do, not just support. However, we shouldn’t forget roles like Heath Ledger’s The Joker (RIP) or Agent Smith in The Matrix.
In response to “spin-offs” I genuinely believe there is a “proper” way to do it. For example, the (ugh) spin-offs of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. While I have a lot of thoughts about the trilogy in general, I believe the Jack Sparrow focus was entirely unnecessary. That would have been better done if an origin story was told. Who wants to watch him derp around and try to gain immortality with some random love interest? He’s comedic relief with an air of mystery. So let’s find out about the mystery. Perhaps watch how the crazed adult started as a cocky youth.
Wonderful article over-all and thank you for praising the supporting roles we all love (whether we know it or not!)
I feel bad that I neglected to talk about how supporting characters can also be villains and, while they don’t necessarily prop the hero up at all, serve to provide them with an image of the darker nature of humanity. The Joker is a brilliant example; he’s by no means the main character of The Dark Knight, but not only did Heath Ledger win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he’s also regarded as being the most fascinating character in that movie and, perhaps, even in the entire Dark Knight Trilogy.
There is also the matter of deciding who is the main character in each film because, in the end, it can be subjective at times. For example, you bring up Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Sparrow does come off as more of a supporting character, but Johnny Depp was nominated for Best Actor, not Supporting Actor. Same goes for Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption; although he is the narrator of the film and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, it still feels like he is the one who helps out Tim Robbins (though this can be heavily debated).
Anyways, I appreciate your kind words and the discussion topics you bring up Jermac. I hope to hear more from you.
I think this is an interesting subject. As you point out, minor characters are usually under valued and end up with less then they deserve. I liked how you pointed out that this is not true and that they serve for a bigger purpose and that main characters could not make it to their happy endings without their sidekicks.
Thanks Mlaw, I appreciate your comment.
I feel that it is the writers job when creating supporting characters to find a balance between the idea of the characters, or what the characters stands for on a deeper level and this characters as a believable person. If done right, the supporting character can be more important than the main character.
Absolutely. I mentioned above the example of The Joker in The Dark Knight, but right now I’m also reminded of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. Both of these gents are supporting characters (although Anthony Hopkins is regarded as the male lead I would still consider him a supporting character to Jodie Foster) who some say completely take over their films. Now, it is up to everyone to decide whether this is good or bad, but nevertheless, it is the mark of a quality character when they are able to have such a huge impact in their film. Thanks for your comment James 🙂
Supporting characters not only are “guide and help the main character”, but often times they lead the protagonist or anti-hero toward a dynamic change. What is good storytelling without following the journey of the protagonist to some sort of discovery?
Without the supporting roles, as you suggest, so much of the storyline gets lost and one dimensional. Where would Hamlet be without Horatio? Some would say Horatio is not a developed enough character; however, Horatio helps to move the story along through dialogue and sharing what he heard with Hamlet, keeping him in the realm of reality and(at times)out of insanity. Without Horatio, Hamlet would just be a crazy man, completely ungrounded in any form of reality.
For plot structure and dynamic change the supporting role is crucial and deserves more accolades than is given. A one man show, without a supporting character, is purely existentialism. August, Thank you for sharing.
That’s an interesting aspect of the supporting role that I hadn’t considered. I was mainly just talking about how a supporting character will follow the lead to the change, but I don’t think I really mentioned anything about the supporting character initiating the change (aside from Ben Kenobi perhaps). You could easily take someone like Robin William’s character from Good Will Hunting who pushes will to break out of his psychological/emotional prison so that he may live a fuller life; in that regard, he did cause a change to the lead that otherwise would not have occurred. The same can go for Ben Affleck’s character in the movie who wants Will to be something more than he is. Thanks for the comment Leisa, I hope to keep talking about this.
Val Kilmer in Tombstone – He stole that film & elevated it from being a good movie to one of the best of 1993.
Hear, hear 🙂
Brad Pitt in True Romance.
Gene Hackman in The Unforgiven.
Benicio Del Toro in The Usual Suspects.
Cuba Gooding in Jerry Maguire.
Anthony Hopkins – Silence of the Lambs.
I’d say Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds who completely stole the show from Brad Pitt and of course won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Dude is perfection.
Both you and Shhm have mentioned villains that I neglected to put into the article, but still very much deserve recognition as amazing supporting characters.
“In the end, the only reason that supporting characters aren’t celebrated as much as main characters is that they ultimately aren’t the ones that we want to be. To support just sounds too dull; we don’t want to support, we want to do. And that is a totally natural impulse and one that shows the signs of a truly proactive person. But what we ought to realize is that to support someone is to do something. It is to ensure people that they are not alone, and that we will stand by them and show them that they truly matter.”
I love this quote. It’s so true, too; sometimes choosing to step out of the spotlight and remove oneself from the the center of attention so that someone else may shine can be a difficult choice to make, but one of the most rewarding as well. Without any supporters, there simply would not be any doers.
Thanks Kcholley, your kind words mean a lot to me 🙂
For me Drexl made True Romance.
I get where the supporting character has to be “held back” in some cases to where they should be. Case in point: John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. He did a great job, and even though it was not my favorite movie, without him it would have flat-lined. (The same thing happened when the high school football team captain took the role as the evil stepmother in Cinderella in my high school’s musical) With great acting/performance, a supporting character can become the star, and basically ruin the director’s vision.
I love supporting characters! In an ensemble cast there are no real supporting characters. But otherwise, the supporting characters shine because of good writing and good acting. The character of Addison DeWitt, in the classic film “All About Eve” nearly steals the film as the theater critic.
This article made me think about the T.V. series “Gilmore Girls”;though both Lorelai and Rory could be considered main characters, they are also one another’s supporters.They largely influence the plots of one another’s lives. I think that this is often how it is in real life. Rarely is one person the main character all the time and the other the supporter. I think all of us should attempt to be both, always.
I know that this comment isn’t focused on film, but it’s the bunny trail my mind went off on. It had nice scenery.
Thank you for the well-composed article and for making me think!
I still think Methos was the best reason to watch Highlander. 🙂
Insightful article. In Jungian terms, all characters are an aspect of the main, so a supporting character represents qualities that the hero needs to develop or overcome in order to become a more fully-realized version of their highest self. I’ve seen supporting characters analyzed within their own context before, but never as a class like this. Cool idea!
This article not only made me think about supporting characters in film but in real life, as you mentioned. Many times the spotlight is on a certain person, the main character, when in actuality, the supporting character does just as much to help the success of the main character. I think the part about how supporting characters are not wanted in the spotlight is fascinating. Sacrificing the spotlight in order to support someone else’s is such an interesting and true concept. There are times when I feel the supporting character itself does not want to be the center of attention because he or she prefers being the silent one, however, I had not quite thought about it in the ways you discuss. Great article!
Thanks, I appreciate your kind words.
I completely agree! I read the Divergent series recently, at the request of a friend, and found myself wondering why they seemed so flat. Obviously, it was because no one other than the protagonist and her love interest were actually developed! Love your take on things here.
Thanks, I appreciate the comment.
I’ve always hated the term sidekick and this article describes why. It’s such an undervalued term and leaves important characters seem like an after thought.
Yea, it’s a lousy way to refer to characters who have just as much stake in the story as any of the leads. Thanks for the comment.
I’m watching a show right now that has been renewed for a second season. Everyone is writing off the supporting character as dead but not everyone can see the importance of these characters. The show I’m watching is ‘Underground’ on WGN. Like you mentioned, with Ben Kenobi inspiring Luke these characters encourage our main characters. It’s important they’re there because we love to see our main characters smile and have hope. We can only scream at our tv screens 🙂 but our supporting roles will sit next to them and pat their backs. They’ll make them look up and give eye contact in hope they’ll regain confidence. They can give them the inspiration they need to “save the day” or go up to that girl they were scared to approach so that we can see a happily ever after lol I intentionally searched for an article on the importance of supporting roles and I’m happy I came across yours 😀
Do you mind if I share your article with the facebook group? I wish there was an email followup box here 😀 I’ll check back
First of all, thank you very much for your kinds words and comments. Secondly, feel free to share my article.
Supporting characters aren’t always the most important, but when they are, it’s a beautiful thing, even in normal sitcom television. An example of this is Niles the Butler and C.C. Babcock in The Nanny.