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.