The key to a bad movie is that the hero never changes or learns anything. The key to a really bad movie is when all the characters around the hero seem to exist only to help the hero and have no goals of their own. That means the key to a good movie is to make sure your hero changes and your minor characters all have goals of their own.
What makes any story interesting is when the audience can see the characters pursuing both a physical goal and an emotional goal. The hero must have both types of goals but to make a stronger story, your secondary characters need that too. At the beginning of your story, your hero needs to be stuck in a dead-end life, but your secondary characters need to be stuck in similar dead-end lives too.
In “Galaxy Quest,” which is a spoof on “Star Trek,” Tim Allen plays a starship captain and his emotional problem is that he’s arrogant while his physical problem is that he wants to get romantically involved with Sigourney Weaver.
Sigourney Weaver and the rest of the “Galaxy Quest” stars all have similar problems of being stuck in a dead-end life as has-been actors. Yet they each also have an emotional goal as well. Sigourney Weaver also is romantically attracted to Tim Allen, the crew’s alien doctor hates being typecast as an alien, but when an alien dies in his arms, he finally accepts his role in shaping someone’s life.
The other secondary characters also achieve goals of their own. There’s a bit actor who played a minor role as a crewman who gets killed on the show, who only wants to play another role in the show again. There’s the ship’s engineer who falls in love with an alien.
The point is that all of these secondary characters have goals, which makes the overall story more interesting because so many people are pursuing goals at the same time and each time we learn of a new goal of a character, it holds our attention to wonder how it will be satisfied.
On the surface, a story might seem to be nothing more than a single goal centered around the hero, but a well-crafted story is actually about every major character having a goal. Omit goals from your secondary characters and your story will weaken considerably. Give your secondary characters goals of their own and your story will come alive, especially if everyone has similar emotional goals as your hero because each minor story strengthens the overall story.
“Planet 51” is an example of a movie where the secondary characters lack any goals of their own. Even the hero doesn’t have a very compelling goal. Emotionally, he wants to date the girl next door, and physically his goal is to help the stranded astronaut, but there’s nothing compelling about either goal and neither goal seems linked to the other.
The secondary characters in “Planet 51” are even worse. There’s a hippie-like alien who’s trying to date the girl the hero likes, but this hippie alien has no goals of his own, so when he helps the hero at the end, it feels false and out of place. Even the stranded astronaut doesn’t seem to have any goal other than to get back to Earth. Do we know what his emotional goal might be? No, and that lack of emotional goals for the characters helps sink the overall story.
Audiences want to see a character learn and grow. Any character that doesn’t grow seems flat and dull, and if too many characters don’t have goals, your entire story can feel flat and dull, and that’s the last thing you want.
The key is to have multiple characters pursuing goals and all characters pursuing similar emotional goals. That still won’t guarantee you’ll have a solid story, but not having goals for all your characters practically guarantees you’ll have a weak story.