Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about supporting characters and the important roll they have in telling a story.
I love the movie Forrest Gump. One of my favorite characters is Jenny Curran, played by Robin Wright (adult) and Hanna R. Hall (child). Jenny is such a complex character. At face value she’s a wild child – going through life making terrible decisions. But when you look deeper, you see a character that mirrors Forrest in many ways.
Like Forrest, Jenny is an outsider. While the reasons they don’t fit into local society are different, they recognize they are both outcasts, so to speak. Forrest is born with physical and mental disabilities. Jenny is born into poverty and sexually abused by her father. Neither have the ability to save themselves. But because of their life experiences, they recognize that they are safe with each other and they develop a beautiful friendship.
As the story progresses, we see Jenny continually running from her past, from her pain, from her feelings. Not only does she choose men who abuse her, she abuses herself. She is a person that lacks a sense of self worth.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know Forrest falls in love with Jenny. It appears to be an unrequited love. At this point in the movie, my husband and boys are furious with her. (One son calls her the Mega Skankosaurus which loosely translates into the swankiest dinosaur ever.) But I can’t help but feel sorry for her. The guilt she carries knowing that she is hurting Forrest. And then thinking of her love for him and the confusion that it might bring. Does she love him as friend? Or is it more? And if it’s a romantic love, would she be happy? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Forrest is a unwitting reminder of the past she longs to forget…
The beauty of Forrest is that he knows and accepts himself.
And then we have the night –
Jenny and Forrest make love and afterwards, she runs away again. Only this time, we see Forrest run, too. While her running is more figurative, his is very literal. He is actually running from the pain of a broken heart.
For me, it is this periodic intersecting of their lives that help to propel the story. Without Jenny, the story of Forrest Gump would be ho-hum at best. It is precisely the solid multi-layer construction of a supporting character that helps make this story great. And that is true for any story. No matter how intriguing a main character might be, if the supporting cast is flat, the story will be too. This is not to say that all of the supporting characters must be well-rounded. However, those who frequently interact with the main character should be fleshed out. (Think Samwise Gamgee in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.)
These are some questions I ask myself when considering my supporting cast – particularly those characters who are more important to the story.
So – what about you? Any thoughts or tips on how you develop your supporting characters?
This past week, I was invited to speak about character development to a creative writing class at a local community college – specifically focusing on how I develop my characters.
To be honest, I never gave much thought to my process. It was just something that happened. But the speaking invitation gave me a reason to think about how it all occurs for me.
When it comes to my characters, I tend to spend a lot of time with them. They hang out with me while I’m at work. (I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t always convenient. It’s not easy trying to focus on my job when my characters keep vying for my attention.) They ride with me to the grocery store and walk with me on the beach. I guess you could say we develop a friendship of sorts.
As I learn about the characters, there’s so much information coming at me – it’s easy to forget the little details. I’ve tried a variety of methods to keep my facts straight. Not all of them have been successful. If you do a google search, you’ll find bookoos of these type of forms. After looking at several examples, I decided to make one that fit my needs. If you find that the sheet works for you, please feel free to use it.