Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist
Part 3 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
Stop thinking of your minor characters as characters.
If that flies in the face of everything you’ve ever heard about your story’s supporting cast, then just hang with me for a minute as I first ask you this all-important question:
What is story?
On its surface, story is a mimicry of real life following the journey of one character in particular (the protagonist) as he interacts with a bunch of other characters–just like we interact with all kinds of random and not-so-random people in real life.
But if we dig straight down to the beating heart of story theory, we discover that story is actually more about positing and proving (or disproving) themethan it is anything else. This is true of any type of story, no matter how banal or high-brow, whether the author realizes it or not.
As such, you then have to look past the surface role of all the playing pieces on your story’s board. Your minor characters are no longer just characters; they’re no longer just representations of people (although, of course, you have to keep that aspect in play as well). So what are they?
Get ready–this is where it gets awesome.
Your minor characters are reflections of your protagonist.
Deep down, on the deepest of story levels, the minor characters are there to provide thematic representations of your protagonist’s various fates.
Is Iron Man II a Character Movie?
Welcome to Part 3 of our exploration of the Marvel cinematic universe’s highs and lows of storytelling. Today, we’re going to take a look at how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man II used its minor characters in this powerful way to reinforce the inner journey of protagonist Tony Stark.
In the wake of the blockbuster Iron Man and the flaccid Incredible Hulk, this highly anticipated sequel was received with lukewarm responses. At the time of its release, Marvel’s overarching vision of interwoven movies still wasn’t completely clear, and this movie definitely suffers as a standalone. In hindsight, however, I find it works better, and is, indeed, an integral piece in the overall storytelling–a sort of Avengers 0.5, setting up the true evolution of the series in the following movies.
It’s also an excellent character study, as we get to see mightily flawed would-be hero Tony Stark struggling with the ramifications of everything that happened to him in the past six months–including being captured by terrorists, changing the focus of his multi-billion-dollar company, becoming Iron Man, and just generally trying to figure out what it really means to stop wasting his life.
Oh, yeah, and he’s also dying.
In short, he’s having a bit of an existential crisis, all against the backdrop of pressure from the government and assault by rogue terrorist Ivan Vanko, who has a personal grudge against Tony and his father.
It’s a busy movie, and one of the chief complaints is that it didn’t develop its exterior conflict with Vanko well enough. Everybody blames Marvel’s insistence of shoehorning in Nick Fury, SHIELD, and Black Widow as setup for The Avengers. But the reality is that this movie is, in fact, a character movie. The external conflict isn’t the point.
The point is Tony’s relationship with the minor characters–and how they flesh out his personal, inner journey. Let’s take a look at how this movie uses its minor characters to create a unified theme–and how you can do the same in your books.
How to Use Your Minor Characters to Create a Rock-Solid Thematic Premise
If character arc and theme are all about the conflict between a posited Lie and Truth, then everything in the story will need to reflect upon that thematic premise in some way. Same goes for the minor characters.
…the concept of clones, characters in the hero’s life who represent possible outcomes, either as cautionary tales or as potential role models. I refer to such characters as parallel characters.
In Story, Robert McKee says it this way:
Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful. This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters toward whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places. These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.
6 Ways Minor Characters Can Deepen Your Protagonist
Now consider how Iron Man II uses its minor characters. Every single one is carefully chosen to reflect upon the protagonist or represent a future fate he may experience–depending on the thematic choices he makes in the story.
The antagonist is always the most obvious representation of the protagonist. It is his similarities to the protagonist that both tempt the protagonist and warn him away from the Lie.
Vanko is an obvious example. He and Tony are very similar. Both are genius inventors. Both are the sons of genius inventors–both of whom were involved in creating the ARC reactor. Both are tortured by their pasts with their fathers. Both are intent on “putting things right.” Tony could end up as Vanko in the blink of the eye (and, indeed, arguably does by the time Civil War rolls around).
Here’s another antagonist, mirroring still more aspects of Tony’s life. Hammer is also an inventor (although not quite so genius), and, like Tony, he is the head of a major arms manufacturing company (although not quite so successful). He’s a wise guy (although not quite so fly as Tony), he’s a jerk (although never lovable like Tony), and a selfish wheeler and dealer (just like Tony).
Hammer is a representation primarily of who Tony used to be: a weapons dealer who had no care whatsoever for the moral ramifications of his actions. All he cared about was being the top dog whatever the cost and however much of a jerk he had to be to get there.
NATASHA ROMANOV / BLACK WIDOW
Iron Man II introduces the perennially popular character of (sorta) repentant spy Natasha Romanov. She provides foreshadowing for the roles Tony will fill–as a reluctant member of SHIELD and the Avengers. Hers is primarily a surface reflection of outer roles, rather than a representation of the Lie/Truth.
Tony’s not-quite girlfriend, the ever-dependable Pepper Potts, reluctantly takes over Stark Industries, at Tony’s insistence–representing his status as head of the company and his erstwhile position as CEO. Note how by externalizing this particular role of Tony’s, the story is able to transform it into a much more active form of conflict. Now, Tony gets to argue with Pepper (representing the aspect of him that would be a “good” CEO), instead of simply internalizing information and making decisions.
Pepper is also, as Love Interest and a Mentor of sorts, a representation of the Truth. She is Tony’s complete opposite: thoughtful, responsible, dutiful, and kind. She represents the ideal the protagonist is capable of achieving if only he can come fully to grips with the Truth.
JAMES RHODES / WAR MACHINE
Tony’s rightfully indignant best friend Rhodey is a two-sided reflection. On the one hand, like Pepper, he represents the ideal toward which Tony is striving: a man who is responsible enough to be entrusted with the War Machine suit–without using it for drunken party tricks.
On the other hand, Rhodey also represents Tony’s potential fate if he ever completely surrenders his tech to the government. Rhodey’s suit is slaved by Hammer and Vanko, turning him into a mindless weapon that threatens even his friends.
And, finally, we have Tony’s dad, Howard, who appears in flashbacks. Tony’s relationship with his brilliant father is complicated and full of wounds–but it is also perhaps the most important projection of Tony’s future evolution.
He is more similar to his father than to any other character: they’re both brilliant, conflicted playboys with poor relational skills. In hating his father, Tony is essentially hating himself. He cannot come to inner peace without first harmonizing this outer manifestation of his inner conflict.
Consider the minor characters in your story. How are they already reflections or representations of your protagonist’s various traits, roles, and potential fates? How can you strengthen their thematic relationship to your protagonist to create an even deeper and more powerful weave within your story?