THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
SUPPORTING CHARACTERS & STORY PURPOSE
In THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) Lee Marvin doesn't say, "we need another guy", he
says: "What we really need is an equalizer. A dynamiter. A man with a delicate
touch: to blow out a candle without putting a dent in the candle holder. And I know
just the guy. He's not far from here... In jail." Burt Lancaster's character is introduced
by his specific talent and weapon. We also find out he's a well dressed romeo who
can con his way into ANY woman's bed, and that he's had a few brushes with the law.
Both the verbal introduction and the later actual introduction accentuate Lancaster's
unique character traits and his place in the story.
Every character in your screenplay needs to have a *story purpose* - a reason for being there. Supporting characters aren't just thrown on the page to give our protagonist someone to talk to in this scene, or someone to kiss in that big scene on page 73; they are part of the story itself. Any character that can be removed from the story without harming it, *should* be removed from the story. You also should combine characters who serve the same story purpose into a single character - if the protagonist has two best friends who are there to support him, he may only end up with one. Combining two characters who serve the same purpose helps to better focus the story.
Let's take a look at the supporting characters in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN - a sex comedy with heart. The story is both a workplace comedy (primary) and a male-lead rom-com (secondary), and it has a great comedy concept (title tells all). The story is about the guys at work discovering our hero (Steve Carrell) is still a virgin at forty, so they decide to get him laid. They do all kinds of things, from speed dating to strippers to setting him up with that bookstore girl with the very healthy sex drive; in order to deal with the virgin issue. Each situation is designed for comedy... and most of them bring the funny.
The workplace is the center of the story - and the fellow workers include:
1) A guy who is obsessed with his ex-girl friend.
2) A guy with lots of theories about how to pick up girls.
3) A married guy who cheats on his wife.
4) A sexually aggressive woman co-worker.
5) The two adult immigrant guys who offer grown up advice - sort of.
Notice how each of these characters show a different side of male/female reltionships, so that they connect to the comedy concept of a forty year old virgin. If they all showed different sides of how to deal with strict corporate policy, they'd be perfect for some other movie dealing with *that* subject. The supporting characters are there to support the story - each serves a story purpose by illustrating a different theory on romantic issues... and in the case of the sexually aggressive woman co-worker a "worst case scenario" for losing his virginity. Every character in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN is *defined* by their viewpoint on romance, and their story purpose is to show those different aspects of relationships. When the protagonist is interacting with Paul Rudd (obsessed with his ex) he's exploring a different aspect of romantic relationships than when he's in a scene with Romany Malco (the married guy who cheats). None of these six characters duplicate each other's point of view, so our protagonist can learn from each of them. He could end up *becoming* any of them, if he follows their advice - so each offers him a window on his own future.
We also have two main women roles in the film: The nympho who works at the book store next door (the amazing Elizabeth Banks) and the nice woman his age who is a customer in the store (the also amazing Catherine Keener). These are two extremes - and both offer solutions to the "virgin problem". He can either have wild pointless sex or enter into a serious relationship. Lust or love? These characters also support the story - they're characters connected to the concept. Both have a story purpose. If you were to leave out the bookstore girl who symbolizes lust, our protagionist would have no choice but love. Without the lust choice, the story is over - why doesn't he just hook up with nice woman?
All of his buddies at work vote for lust... for different reasons And the comedy comes from various attempts at getting our protagonist laid - the speed dating scene is like two dozen hell-dates in about 5 minutes of film. The night club scenes allow for similar terrible relationships - like the drunk girl who wants him to blow into her breathalizer, then crashes her car.
While these things are going on, our hero is pursuing the nice woman... and finds that her "go slow" theory works perfect - he never has to tell her he's a virgin if they aren't going to sleep together for 20 dates. It's the easy way out! And that means that his secret (he's a virgin) turns into a big lie - and that will eventually destroy the relaionship. "Easy ways" allow the conflict to escalate until it explodes.
Throughout Act 2, our protagonist bounces back and forth between the supporting character who symbolizes love and the supporting characters who symbolize lust (bookstore girl, strippers, night club girls). Each character serves the story - no character is just thrown in for a cheap laugh. Again - if this were a story about a strict workplace environment, we'd have *different* supporting characters. Those characters would show us aspects of how to deal with the pressures of a strict workplace. OFFICE SPACE is also a workplace comedy (primary) and a male-lead rom-com (secondary) but it focuses on corporate bureaucracy - and each of its characters illustrate some aspect of that story... like the guy who lost his red stapler and gets transferred to the basement... and the two guys who give the evaluations, and decide that the protagonist should get promoted because he doesn't give a damn. All of the supporting characters in OFFICE SPACE have a story purpose for *that* story, but toss them into THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and they just get in the way. They would have no purpose in the story!
Once our protagonist's lie is exposed and things explode, we're in Act 3 territory - which is where the rom-com stuff kicks in full force - because we want our couple to be together, but concept-related circumstances keep them apart. Act 1 & 2 are workplace sex comedy with the rom-com material in the background, and now it comes to the foreground. Now we get the typical rom-com series of scenes that bring the couple together only to pull them apart - she finds the big ol' box of porn, he blows up that she forced him to sell his action figures, etc. Then they finally come together (usually with that race to the airport or wedding scene in a rom-com, here it's him crashing into her car on his bicycle). Blam! They get together, apologize, say they love each other, kiss, and live happily ever after... closing credits.
But our protagonist wouldn't be ready for a serious relationship if it had not been for what he learned from the supporting characters. Each showed him a different way to deal with the situation. Each was a window into his own future. Those characters weren't there by accident - each served a specific story purpose based on that unique interesting comedy idea about a 40 year old virgin.
Look at each of your supporting characters and ask: "What is the purpose of this character? Is he/she/it necessary to the story? Why is this character important? What is their function? Are there two characters who serve the same story purpose?" If so - get rid of one of them! Remember to highlight the differences between your supporting characters when you
introduce them. The sooner we can tell who they are and what purpose they serve in the story, the better! All of those tools we use to introduce our protagonist can be used when we're introducing our supporting cast. Give us a distinctive introduction for each character that gives us as much information as possible in a single scene. Tell us how they relate, not only to the protaginist, but to the story itself.
For more on how Supporting Characters work, check out the Supporting Characters Blue Book.
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E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
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