Don’t Forget the Secondary Characters

There’s a New Zealand animated film called “Mosely,” which is about beasts of burden that are strong like horses but intelligent and able to talk like a person. Not surprisingly, humans exploit these animals by whipping them and selling off their children similar to what slaves experienced in the Deep South.

While this is an interesting premise, the story isn’t quite complete. The hero (Mosely) was initially separated from his mother and sold to a farm. Now twenty-five years later, Mosley is a father with a son of his own who is reaching an age where he will be sold off soon.

When Mosley discovers a cave filled with paintings showing his race walking on two feet with hands, he realizes the legends that his race might have once been free spurs him to search for these possibly mythical beings.

That’s fine but where “Mosley” falls down is in his allies who help him. None of them have goals of their own and they exist solely to help Mosley and advance the plot. As a result, no matter how comical the film tries to make them, these supporting characters feel like flat, two-dimensional characters. As a result, the sole emphasis on the hero (Mosley) means the overall story is much weaker as a result.

Pixar’s latest film, “Onward,” suffers that same flaw. In “Onward,” two elves are searching for a magical gem to power a staff that will allow them to see and speak to their dead father again.

The two elves have clear goals, but the supporting characters, their mother and her boyfriend, a centaur police officer, do not have any goals whatsoever. As a result, when the mother rushes in to help her sons get the magical gem in the end, there’s no sense of purpose.

Imagine if in “Star Wars” we knew nothing about Hans Solo and then he suddenly rushes in to help Luke by shooting down Darth Vader’s escorting TIE fighters. That act in “Star Wars” has meaning because it shows Hans has changed as a person. Instead of being motivated solely by money, his selfless act in saving Luke shows that he’s now motivated by doing what’s right.

In both “Mosley” and “Onward,” the supporting characters lack clear goals of their own and fail to change emotionally. So their actions in the end to help the hero feels phony and forced. Rather than cheer when these supporting characters help the hero (like with Hans Solo in “Star Wars”), the actions of these supporting characters in “Mosley” and “Onward” feel flat and meaningless.

Who cares if somebody you don’t even know rushes in to help the hero at the last minute? That action means nothing to the supporting character or the hero’s relationship to that supporting character. It’s just an example of mindless action that helps the plot while pretending to be important.

So the key to creating a full story is to make sure all supporting characters have goals of their own and change emotionally just like the hero.

In “Legally Blonde,” the hero (Elle) helps a hairdresser gain confidence to win the attention of a UPS deliveryman. When this hairdresser shows up in court to support Elle in her first court case, she brings the UPS deliveryman with her, which shows that Elle’s help has changed her for the better.

In “Star Wars” when Hans Solo charges back at the last second to save Luke, it’s really important because it shows he’s changed and no longer cares about money.

The key is making supporting characters help the hero at the end to show they’ve also changed into a better person. When both the hero and the major supporting characters change to become better people, that creates a tighter, more focused story that’s far more emotionally satisfying than seeing a single hero change while everyone else remains static, one-dimensional characters.

So give your supporting characters goals similar to the hero’s own goals, and make sure they change through the help of the hero. That tiny detail can make all the difference in the world.

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