Minor Characters: can they do more?

Sometimes, you can read a book or watch a movie several time, and never notice something important in it – until one day, you see it. And that changes the entire book or movie for you.

truman show

This past week, my Philosophy class watched The Truman Show. If you’ve never seen it, it’s an awesome movie! The basic plot goes like this:  Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carey) is a normal man living a normal life, with his slightly overbearing wife, slightly overwrought mother, and slightly less-than-ambitious best friend. But Truman has one ambition:  to leave his hometown and travel. And this, the directors cannot let him do.

See, Truman was adopted at birth, and is now the unwitting star of a television program that has been running, nonstop, for 29 years. His wife? An actress. His mother? An actress. His bet friend? Say it with me . . . an actor. (Hell, half the time he’s being fed his lines directly from the show’s producer!) As Truman slowly begins to realize that his life is a total fabrication, he’s forced to confront all his fears and – eventually – the unknown world.

My Philosophy students watch this to better understand certain philosophical questions and theories – Plato, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, even Camus comes up in discussion. Of course, as a writer, I look at it from a slightly different perspective. For Truman, everyone is an antagonist; everyone is out to keep him from his goal of finding his lost love and sailing away to Fiji.

Or are they?

See, this is where that whole ‘watch something a hundred times . . .’ thing comes in. There is one character – a very minor character – who, I finally realized, isn’t actually trying to hinder Truman at all. And that character is the bus driver.

bus driverYup. Bus driver.

In one scene, Truman attempts to escape Seahaven by taking the bus to Chicago – which, of course, cannot happen because a.) the entire show is filmed inside a huge dome, and b.) you can’t let the star escape. The poor bus driver is ordered to figure out a way to stop the bus from leaving, and intentionally strips the gears. As everyone else gets off the bus, he looks back at Truman – still sitting in the back, with his little plaid suitcase – and then walks back to him and says, “I’m sorry, son.”

You think, at first, that he’s merely repeating a line. What else would a bus driver say, after all?

But later in the movie, when it’s discovered that Truman has escaped in a sailboat and is trying to find a way out, the producers order the ferry to be launched. The bus driver (who has no name, apparently), is brought to drive the ferry and – voila. Strips the gears.

Coincidence? I’ve read essays about the show that claim this is about white superiority and ensuring that the only non-white character really shown is ignorant and incompetent – but you know what? I think that’s total BS.

I think the bus driver did it on purpose. 

And, I think he did it to help Truman. 

soapboxHere, give me my soap box. That’s better. 🙂

I think he is the only character, in the entire movie (except for Truman’s true love), who has any sense of decency, compassion, or morality. Everyone else has to be pushed to the absolute outer limits of murdering Truman before they call it quits! But not the Bus Driver. Here, I’ll capitalize his title. 🙂 It only took me what, a dozen times of seeing this movie to figure it out? But. I think this is a very subtle, almost Easter-egg-like, thing the movie’s writers slid into the script. Maybe the Bus Driver really can pilot the ferry. Who knows? The point is, he didn’t. I think he took his opportunity to give Truman a fighting chance to escape. Had the ferry started up, they would have caught Truman, and that would have been the end of it. But because the ferry couldn’t run, Truman had his chance to escape. And he does it in a way that is totally in keeping with his character and the show’s plot.

And suddenly, what looks like a random, rational event that helps Truman escape becomes a real plot point. From a minor character, no less!

So. The question becomes, how can your minor characters change the odds for your main character? For better or worse? Is there any place where a minor character can drop a hint to your MC, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time? Say something, randomly, that jogs a memory or makes a connection? Provide them with some bit of knowledge they need for their journey? JK Rowling does this a lot – small, seemingly insignificant things in the beginning of the book become Very Important later on, and almost all of them are from secondary – sometimes, even minor – characters.

So think about those throwaway characters. Can you give them a little heart and soul? Can you give them a real reason to be there?

Just some food for thought. 🙂