Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How spicy do you like your sidekicks?

By Pamela

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges a writer faces is creating memorable characters, avoiding stereotypes and clichés along the way. For me, the best formula for an addictive story is a relatable main character and an unfathomable secondary character. Not quite, but almost.

The supporting role in a novel or screenplay gets to be everything the main character isn’t—and probably wishes she were. She’s Rhoda to Mary Tyler Moore or Kramer to Jerry.

He’s not just a doctor who runs an orphanage, (The Cider House Rules) but he also performs abortions and is addicted to ether. He’s not just a kid brother, (Beach Music) he’s also a gun-toting, paranoid schizophrenic who stops traffic on the town bridge and makes his brothers strip naked and jump over the side. Almost too crazy to believe!

Remember rifle-wielding Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain? Had she been meek and mild, would Renée Zellweger have won an Oscar for her performance? Probably not.

The trick in creating an outlandish sidekick, kid sister, co-worker or man-down-the-hall is not allowing them to overshadow your main character. If Penélope Cruz (as Maria Elena) had shown up in the first scene of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the movie would have been renamed. Just like habaneros in salsa, a little goes a long way.

So, when it comes to creating memorable characters, let your main characters establish the story and devote limited scenes to your more colorful, crazed supporting roles, lest they take over the manuscript and start demanding their own book or movie. Sequel, anyone?

Now, you tell me: What secondary character from a novel or screenplay put the kick in your salsa, sending you scrambling for a cold beer?


  1. Anonymous15 July, 2009

    I love Steve Zahn. He is a great comedian and always makes me laugh. However, when they throw him in as the main guy (can't think of the movie right off hand, but was just talking about it the other day) he tries way too hard and it just turns out bad. But as the supporting actor to Matthew McC in Sahara, or to Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care, he keeps me in stitches!
    Ok, so maybe it's not great literature, you might be posing your question to a more "prestigious" audience, but when I read it I thought immediately of Steve Zahn. And by the way, I LOVE Ruby in Cold Mountain!

  2. No, Steve is a great example. The last movie I saw him in was Sunshine Cleaning with Amy Adams. (Also with Emily Blunt--who in The Devil Wears Prada is another great example of a supporting role that was memorable.) Good one, Renee.

  3. I loved Steve Zahn in Management with Jennifer Anniston. This might be the one Renee didn't care for, though. He was pretty unfathomable. :)

  4. Anonymous24 July, 2009

    Well written and a fun piece, Pam. Often it is the supporting characters in books and within stage and film productions who not only add kick to whatever they're in, but flush out the fullenss of the main characters. I'm a big fan of both the stage and film version of The Phantom of the Opera. Neither would work without the spicy diva role (played wonderfully by Minnie Driver in the movie) in contrast to the sweet and innocent Christine.
    I think this blog is fantastic! Hope to see you soon.
    Deb (Kim's mom)


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