A story doesn’t need to address every kind of morality; in fact, it may be better for a story to explore only one. Stories give us the opportunity to see their characters live their moralities as a kind of experiment. Storytelling, especially the storytelling of timed arts like plays or films, requires compression, the shedding of anything extraneous. (Novels are another matter, as the allow us to linger, jump back, reread.) For both these reasons, a story can still be good while shoving some characters and their moralities to the side. Telling a story requires choosing, and that means choosing who will be the major characters, who the minor, and who the scenery and plot devices. A character doesn’t have to have much screen time to have the most impact, though, and a character can still be first billed and not matter at all. There are still ways to make minor characters succeed and ways to fail them. Given the overall tendency in our culture to marginalize women, it’s no surprise that most of the minor characters that get failed are women; my examples here are all female but the solution to this problem applies to both genders.
SPOILERS FOR SICARIO AND TRUE DETECTIVE FOLLOW
The first season of True Detective gives a good example of the challenges of minor characters, simply because everyone minus two people in the cast was one. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga told the story of Rust and Marty (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) and everything else was secondary to that; every other character was scenery (often compelling scenery) or plot (often an interesting plot). Maggie, Marty’s wife, got sidetracked the most by this, reduced to the status of a plot device; she was there so she could raise children, get cheated on by Marty, find out, and revenge-fuck Rust. Michelle Monaghan played her about as well as she could, but the show didn’t follow her pain or her changes, and she never felt as real as the two leads did.
I’ve often wished that there could be some kind of official recognition for this sort of portrayal of minor characters, something like Best Actress in a Thankless Role or Best Actress with No Help from Anyone Thank You Very Little. Natalie Zea, a regular nominee and winner for Justified, probably named it the best:
I'd like to welcome Michelle Monaghan to the "Underwritten Wife Character on an Otherwise Brilliant TV Show" club. #TrueDetective
— Natalie Zea (@nataliezea) February 2, 2014
These performances get overlooked, because the greatness of the performance is that you don’t notice them: all that’s written and directed is “a floor lamp with some useful information written on it” (in Tasha Robinson’s words) and somehow the actress makes it work. Monaghan brought that off in True Detective; another good example is Amanda Peet in Syriana (she had very little dialogue and nothing to do except react to Matt Damon and still created a real person), and Mercedes Ruehl actually scored Best Supporting Actress for this kind of performance in The Fisher King.
Back to True Detective: in the second season, Pizzolatto broadened the central cast of characters from two to five, created a way more convoluted plot to accommodate all of them, and created a better, messier series. He also created a damn fine, even exemplary minor character: Abigail Spencer’s Gena, ex-wife of Colin Farrell’s Ray. Before the series’ narrative time began, Gena was raped, and Vince Vaughan’s Frank gave Ray the identity of the rapist, who Ray then killed. It’s left as a possibility, only resolved in the final moments of the series, that Gena and Ray’s son is the rapist’s biological son. This plays into a lot of noirish and Pizzolattan themes: the past that never goes away, the violence and anger of men, the different forms and actions of responsibility.
Gena, though, has the most impact and it’s above and beyond those themes, and she does it while only appearing in a few scenes. These themes trap Ray, but not Gena: she has simply moved on, and she’s getting a paternity test “to finally put the fiction that we were a family behind us.” She has a struggle and a story, and although Pizzolatto doesn’t show it to us, he and Spencer convey it that it’s there. (Spencer was just as good here as she was in Mad Men, playing the most memorable of Don Draper’s lovers.) No moment in the entire two-season run of True Detective (and, sadly, we now know it is the entire run, at least as authored by Pizzolatto) lands as hard as a simple conversation between Ray and Gena, just past the halfway mark. Ray discovers, in true noir fashion, that the man Frank sent him after wasn’t the rapist, and he struggles to tell Gena, concluding with a classic hard-boiled line: “Frank–he set me up” and Gena replies “I don’t know what that means.” In that moment, we and Ray discover the limits of his world; that the action of killing, that the whole structure of revenge that he lives, isn’t just wrong, it’s meaningless. It’s there in the words and especially Spencer’s delivery; she reads that line with the same kind of force with which Tommy Lee Jones yells “I don’t care!” in The Fugitive, and it has the same intent: what difference could that possibly make?
Pizzolatto is an occasionally clumsy and incomplete writer, but he’s an honest one, and a moral one, and that scene shows why: he takes his characters to the limits of their morality. In the first season, Rust went to the limit of his pessimism and Marty to the limit of his masculinity, and they both found that there was something beyond that. Ray in that moment comes to the limit of his own code of revenge. In that moment, Gena exists by a morality that’s entirely outside Ray’s; we don’t see it to the extent that we do his, but it’s there. That’s what makes a strong minor character: we don’t see as much of them as we do the major characters, but they are just as real.
In Sicario, writer Taylor Sheridan and director Denis Villenueve make what could have been an interesting move: they make the first lead role, Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, a minor character. The plot is Alejandro’s (Benicio del Toro) journey of revenge and how Josh Brolin’s CIA character Matt Graver enables it; Macer, as Mike d’Angelo has described, serves as a notary. Her presence as a DEA agent legitimizes the operation and in her last scene, she literally signs off on it. As a way of showing how the War on Drugs has degenerated into a war of all-against-all, it could work; Alejandro’s final line to Macer shows a true conflict of moralities: “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists.”
This doesn’t work, though, because Blunt hasn’t been given a real character to play. Villenueve and Sheridan use her, just as del Toro and Brolin do. Everyone else has an objective (get revenge, aid and abet revenge to bring down a cartel) but Macer only has an attitude–disapproval of what everyone else is doing–and that’s not the same thing as an objective. She has a function in the plot, but not a character; she could be replaced by a spunky yet judgmental floor lamp with the public service announcement “Sicario does not endorse the cool crime of revenge” written on it. Some critics, including Mike d’, who liked Sicario described her as “helpless,” but that’s wrong. “Helpless” applies to people who try to do something and fail; not doing anything is simply weakness. That makes so little sense for Macer; the first scene shows us that she lives in a world where she can die at any moment. She can handle risk, so making her not do anything makes even less sense. Blunt is such a compelling actress, and if Macer had done something, she would have been able to give a great performance and her morality would have some stakes; we would have to ask the question if her actions were worth the risk. Macer could have tried to expose the operation, she could have tried to escape it, she could have tried to bring it down from within, she could have (this was ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER’s most excellent suggestion) accepted what Brolin and del Toro were doing and joined up. She does none of these things and in the end, she comes across as one more clichéd female character: the woman too naïve for this world.
Poorly written minor characters are one of a class of character problems currently in films. There’s also the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Nathan, you are stuck with the name, and I’m glad you pointed it out), only existing to bring joy and life to a male character; the Asshole character, described by our own Riley Sailer; and Trinity Syndrome, called out by Tasha Robinson, a strong female character who still only exists to serve a male character; and the good women who only exist in movies to teach men in the audience a lesson. Tasha also called out this last one and Macer actually is pretty close to this kind of character. I call this metafridging, where the woman doesn’t have to die to give a male character a purpose but exists only to teach male audiences something.
These problems can all be classed together because they all have a common solution, and (you know me) it goes back to the definition of drama. What defines a character, as opposed to scenery or a plot point, is that a character wants something. Drama–really, all story–has characters who want different things, then they act to get those things, then they interact with each other (and whoa–differences), and the storyteller relates what happens. Writing a good character starts with this question: what does he or she want? Not only does that question have to be answered, it has to be answered as if the story doesn’t happen. The problem with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that they want something–the happiness of the main male character–that only exists because of the story. That’s really the definition of the poor minor character: they don’t have their own reality, they only exist for someone else’s story. Knowing the characters’ wants makes the plot happen because of the characters, not the other way around, and gives them a reality beyond the plot.
Giving the characters wants and writing actions based on that gives the actors something to play, and if the actors have something to play then there is something to direct. Good characters, major or minor, have their own stories as part of the larger one: the last we see of Gena, she receives the results of the paternity test and puts it away along with Ray’s things. (Again, Spencer does something in this scene.) She accomplishes her objective and finishes her story: she moves on, and she would also have done that if the entire second season hadn’t happened. That’s why in a few scenes, Gena has such impact; that’s why, despite having the entire movie, Macer doesn’t. Having the characters be real to us means we know the story is there even if we don’t see all of it.
Possibly because this is a time when memorable quotes get passed around and meme-ified, possibly because it’s simply more showy, good lines get mislabeled as good writing. In film, though, the best writing is the most invisible, the work of finding the characters’ wants and creating a sequence of actions by which the characters act on those wants. William Goldman said it best: screenwriting is structure. One doesn’t have to come up with backstories or attitudes for the characters, one just has to know what they want; the more characters have wants, the more characters are part of the story. Do this right and there really are no minor characters, only characters with whom we spend more or less time, and the most memorable and important character can be the one we only see for a few scenes.