17 September 2015

Secondary Characters, Primary Purpose

by Brian Thornton

Excerpt from the script for Wayne's World 2 (1993):

Wayne: Excuse me, what are you guys doing here in the middle of the street? 
Chicken-man: Well, I'm putting these chickens in crates, and stacking them right here. Jim's job is to make sure we always have plenty of watermelons. 
Wayne: Oh, so you're selling watermelons. 
Jim: No, no sir. We just have to make sure we have plenty of them stacked at all times, just like with these here chickens. 
Garth: What do these guys do? 
Chicken-man: Well, their job is to walk back and forth with this big plate-glass window every couple of minutes. 
Garth: Weird. 
Wayne: Yeah, you've got to wonder if this is gonna pay off later on. 

As a long-time fan of Mike Meyers' work, I have to say that the excerpt quoted above is, for me, the funniest thing he's ever done.  And it's not because of the dialogue, or the way that Meyers gives his trademark smirk at the end of the exchange in order to make sure that the audience is in on the joke.

It's because of how utterly, nakedly subversive the whole set-up is.

Meyers is able to get laughs here out of parodying the sheer laziness of Hollywood film-making with regard to the introduction of, and subsequent uses for secondary characters.

I mean, come on, how often in a thriller have we spent the first act trying to figure out which of the hero's buddies is going to be the "plucky comic relief," and which one is going to be cannon fodder in the writer's attempts to "raise the stakes"?
The brilliant Sam Rockwell as "Guy Fleegman," being reassured by the equally brilliant Tony Shalhoub, in "Galaxy Quest"


Because that's the pattern. You see it in every action movie ever made.

Now, don't get me wrong, every character introduced into any work of fiction must serve a purpose, or they must be cut. No exceptions.

And getting back to Meyers' bit about the secondary characters whose jobs are a naked set-up for a mayhem-filled prat fall to come in the film's final act, that's what makes it so funny, for me. Meyers doesn't even attempt to pretend to clothe these characters in legitimacy. They're simply set pieces for the bigger joke down the line.

(It's even funnier than the fact that Meyers breaks the fourth wall, a la Woody Allen, to speak directly to the audience)

And in so doing he pokes merciless fun at those who half-ass their background work, populating their fiction hurly-burly with flat, stock secondary characters who serve one naked purpose, moving through their portion of the story back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery (or, if you prefer, like the two guys in Wayne's World 2 who move that piece of plate glass back and forth across the street) just waiting to fulfill that that singular purpose, and then be dropped.

I have been thinking of this sort of thing quite a bit lately, as I toil on my current Work-In-Progress. How do I make my secondary characters more organic? More believable? Less stock? How do I ensure that everyone who appears in my work serves a vital purpose, and isn't just some guy putting watermelons in a crate, or one of a couple of guys carrying a plate glass window back and forth across a street?

I have some answers, and I'll share them next week. If you've got ideas, drop them in the comment section, and I'll share them with the rest of the class in my next blog post in two short weeks.

Until then....


  1. We have to wait until next week for the answers, Brian? Talk about a Hollywood cliffhanger. :)

  2. Really! Come on! Of course, I'm still trying to figure out if I'm the cannon fodder or the plucky comic relief...

  3. I look forward to your conclusions, Brian.


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