The Genius of Secondary #Characters: What I Learned by Watching the #Movie Black and White

Last month, my husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  He just knew I’d ask for a fun-filled 4-day vacay.  Or at the very least, a night out on the town with a fabulous over-priced meal.  But I surprised him with “I just want to stay home, watch movies, and eat hamburgers”.  His eyes grew wide, but my wish was his command, and he followed through beautifully. 🙂

One of the movie selections was Black and White.  I don’t want to spoil the plot for those that haven’t seen it.  If that’s you, you may want to exit now.  But if you’re curious, you can watch the trailer or read the overview.

As writers, we’re aware that secondary characters can help to move along the plot, but they can do a lot more.  In the case of Duvan (Eloise’s tutor), he was a source of wisdom, comic relief, and diffuser of tensions. Through the rundown of his impressive resume and thought-provoking insight and experiences, it is evident that he learned as he lived.  But it is the former that provided laughter as Duvan did not miss an opportunity to promote himself and his work.

In the majority of his scenes, Duvan is shown opening a leather messenger bag, pulling out a resume and/or articles he’d written, and handing them to strangers who were caught off guard.  Sometimes when he did this it was at pivotal points.  For example, Elliott (Caucasian grandfather) wasn’t a fan of Rowena (African-American grandmother), but there was a need to discuss the well-being of their grandchild (Eloise).  On one visit, Duvan tagged along as Elliott’s driver, but took advantage by spreading his resumes to any and all inhabitants of Rowena’s home.  This lighted what could have been a tense scene.

Another example happened in court when Rowena and her son sued Elliott for custody of Eloise.  While giving testimony, Duvan interrupted his spill to tell the judge about his services, handing her a resume in the process.  This portion of the scene helped to break down what could have been tough not just for the characters, but also for movie-watchers.

What I mean by that is that for some, watching a struggle between Caucasians and African-Americans can sometimes feed prejudices to the point of anger and taking sides.  Duvan was useful for toning down these things in a comedic or wise way so that the focus did not stick to race, but rather the movie topic (i.e. welfare of the child).

So what I learned from this movie was that secondary characters can be a lot more than sharers of dialogue with the main character.  They can also help set the mood or tone for a scene, provide comic relief or some memorable quirk that makes the story interesting, or give support through words of wisdom.  The key to the secondary character is to support the main character and help him/her on the journey towards the objective.

To learn more about secondary character development, check out Ellen Jackson’s post on Secondary Characters and Second Bananas and Sidekicks by The Editor’s Blog.

Photo: Tracey Bennett

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