The Magic of Supporting Characters in Children’s Films

Picture of By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

In my childhood, all the films I frequently watched had one main character, the person who the story would revolve around, and whose struggle was the focus of the plot. Oftentimes, it was also these characters who would be admired and idolized by fans of the films. Harry Potter, Anna from Frozen, Woody from Toy Story; all these popular children film protagonists are icons for many who watched these movies religiously.

This last COVID-19 lockdown, I have been rewatching many of my favorite childhood movies, which has made me realize that I now prefer many of the supporting characters that I hadn’t properly acknowledged as a child, because back then, my main focus had simply been the primary plot the main character faced. What is it about so many supporting characters that is so endearing, and why is their role crucial?

At times they are also given a backstory of their own, however, their main role is to further the storyline of the main character

Traditionally speaking, a supporting character is not the focus of the primary storyline, however, plays a more important role than simply a cameo or background character. At times they are also given a backstory of their own, however, their main role is to further the storyline of the main character. They alter the course of the protagonists plot by engaging with the main character and allowing for this discourse to move the story line forward.

This is effective in film, as it allows us to better understand the different layers to the main character, however, sometimes the supporting character is even more multifaceted and complex than the lead. For example, Darth Vader in the Star Wars series is categorized as a supporting character, and Luke Skywalker is the hero, however, all of Luke Skywalker’s plot is steered by Darth Vader and his elaborate actions. Essentially, supporting characters exist to add depth to the central figure.

One of my favorite supporting characters of all time is Lieutenant Dan Taylor from Forrest Gump, who was Forrest’s platoon leader in the Vietnam War. Dan suffers from terrible injuries during the war, resulting in him having to use a wheelchair. Throughout the film, Forrest always proves he is consistently optimistic, however, Dan is a complete contrast from this, seeing as he is initially deeply depressed for years about his injury and the course his life has taken. This greatly enhances Forrest’s character, seeing as his optimism is put to a test after witnessing such pain from his friend. It is a test to this protagonist’s nature, and although in the end he is able to convince his former platoon leader that life is worth living, it adds a lot of depth to Forrest’s character. 

The Supporting Characters on the Big Screen

Sometimes, film studios take advantage of the viewer’s response to some very loved side characters. In 2003, the movie Finding Nemo was released, which racked up 940 million US dollars in its box office and was internationally a loved and celebrated children’s film. I personally loved Finding Nemo and was thrilled when Finding Dory was released in 2016. Although I was significantly older when the sequel came out, I rushed to the cinema to watch the movie as soon as it launched.

Disney and Pixar had taken a supporting character, namely Dory, who had been a fan favorite in the first film and given her her very own sequel. Dory had been lovable, quirky, interesting, consistently an amazing friend to Nemo, and she had caught the attention of viewers enough to get her own movie. This has also happened with other popular children’s films, such as Madagascar, where the penguins ended up with their own TV show, and Despicable Me, where the fun-loving Minions ended up as the protagonists in not one, but two movies.

The Sidekick’s Personality Can Be More Eccentric Than the Protagonists

There are some films in which the main character’s personality is bland in comparison to the sometimes eccentric or kooky sidekicks.

In some movies, I even prefer the side character’s backstory and personality to the main character. There are some films in which the main character’s personality is bland in comparison to the sometimes eccentric or kooky sidekicks. When I was younger, I was a big fan of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and later also loved the accompanying films, however, I actually thought the main character Greg Heffley, a middle schooler going through the highs and lows of being a preteen, was both rude and plain at once.

His sidekick best friend, Rowley Jefferson, who was a chubby, wacky kid who loves being goofy, writes his own comic books, and loves traveling, was a far more interesting and enchanting character than Greg. However, he is still characterized as the protagonist’s on again off again idiotic friend, even though I would have preferred to watch a movie where someone as multifaceted and bizarre as Rowley was the main character.

The Tropes and Stereotypes of the Supporting Best Friend Character

What can happen sometimes is that it isn’t only the quirky and interesting sidekick that is given the supporting character roles, but sometimes these roles are filled by stereotypical characters who serve as nothing more than simply the protagonist’s friend. For example, a recurring character in many movies is the funny, lovable, fat friend of the main character, who is always supporting the protagonist in her struggles, providing funny commentary and moving the plot along.

The ‘Fat Best Friend’ trope has been widely discussed seeing as it is such a recurring role in many films, such as ‘Fat Amy’ in Pitch Perfect and Megan from Bridesmaids. Another example of these specific supporting characters is the ‘gay best friend’ which is actually more common than the previous trope I mentioned. Some well-known gay best friend characters are Christian from Clueless, George from My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Damian from Mean Girls.

What I Would Love to See

Although the main point of supporting characters is to move the protagonist’s storyline along, I believe movies are made a lot more exciting when the side characters are also given a significant and inspired role. Instead of offering the very common tropes of side character friends to provide comedic relief and sassy comments, these roles could be given a better backstory and a more exciting personality rather than simply being a friend to the central figure. Or better yet, instead of having a relatively plain main character, give the unusual side characters a primary role in a movie for a change! I think for many people it would be a breath of fresh air for the funny side character personalities we all know and love to be shown on the big screen instead of solely on the sidelines.



Cover: Jakob Owens

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