Hola! I saw Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve ended up in a bunch of conversations about it. Sometimes the conversation is about the way he builds a world, sometimes it’s about his use of the Japanese language and how he was able to avoid subtitles, and sometimes — often — it’s about cultural appropriation. (This article isn’t about cultural appropriation, but I don’t think he did anything wrong in the movie on that front — with the possible exception of the curious “white savior” character — but if you disagree and want to chat about it, I’d love love love to have that conversation.)
Anyway, this is about another element of his storytelling I think he does well: his use of secondary characters.
The example that’s stuck with me the most was a secondary character, Nutmeg, played by Scarlet Johansson. She’s the love interest of one of the main character, Chief, and she’s from a noticeably upper rung than the other dogs in the movie.
We learn that Nutmeg went to doggy training (obviously) and at that point — between that and the sheen of her fur — we have enough to understand her role. But there’s also this recurring gag where she demonstrates different tricks she’s learned to Chief, who was a stray dog all his life.
It’s unnecessary, but it highlights the differences between Nutmeg and all the other dogs (especially Chief), it allows us to further understand Nutmeg, and — because the audience is in on a joke the dogs aren’t — it kind of shows the “rules” of the world. (In this case, the dogs could recognize Nutmeg was special for knowing how to do tricks, but there was nothing strange to them about humans bringing their dogs to learn circus-type tricks in the first place.)
As I write this Appalachian Trail book, I’m noticing the more distinct I make my secondary characters (not by making up details, but rather by taking the time to highlight the details), the more believable the world feels.
I remember watching the movie, Rudy, when I was a young adult, and really disliking it. It’s about one dude focused solely on one thing. It didn’t feel real. It was like, this guy really ONLY cares about football? He never gets distracted? He (and the movie) never focus on what anybody else wants? It’s boring. It lacks believability.
The AT’s an interesting place because there a bunch of people (pretty much all rookie thru-hikers) out there, and you’re usually only seeing them in groups of one, two or three, here and there. So you get plenty of alone time, and then — maybe every two hours — you run into someone. Sometimes it’s just a quick, “Hey, how’s it going?” and sometimes you stop and each lunch together, or filter water together.
And we all have the same big goal (to make it to Mt. Katahdin), but everything else is somewhat unique from person to person. For example, some people have goals around speed, while others are more interested in getting lots of experiences. Others are trying to accomplish or tend to some personal, internal thing. Every hiker has different tendencies (some get up early, while some hike late; some eat fruit while others pack out Big Macs), and different preferences, and different reasons for leaving home to go on a 1,200 mile hike.
So, by focusing on my secondary characters, and giving them the depth and time they deserve, I can 1) help paint a broader picture of the world I was in (the story may focus on me, but I’m only one small speck in this community); 2) I can show what is interesting about, and motivating for, these characters; and 3) by doing that I can show how I ‘m the same and — maybe more interestingly — I can highlight how I’m different (not better or worse, just different). A basic, surface-level example of a difference is that there were plenty of people in their 20s and 50s or 60s hiking, but not a lot of people in their 30s. I’m in my 30s, and the fact that I’m out there instead of at a job in New Orleans obviously points to something abnormal and maybe interesting.
Here’s an early exchange in Isle of Dogs when dialogue is used to show us the main character, Chief, is different than the dogs he’s hanging with:
Rex : I used to sleep on a lamb’s wool beanbag next to an electric space heater. That’s my territory, I’m an *indoor* dog.
King : I starred in twenty-two consecutive Doggy Chow commercials. Look at me now, I couldn’t land an audition.
Boss : I was the lead mascot for an undefeated high school baseball team. I lost all my spirit, I’m depressing.
Duke : I only ask for what I’ve always had, a balanced diet, regular grooming, and a general physical once a year.
Chief : You’re talking like a bunch of housebroken… pets.
Rex : You don’t understand. Uh, how could you, I mean you’re a…
Chief : Go ahead say it. I’m a stray, yeah.
Secondary characters also help the main character learn about themselves. That’s as simple as me grabbing a beer with a buddy before I left and that friend saying, “Hey, do you think you’re doing this hike so that she’ll notice?”
“I, uh, don’t think so,” I said. Really not sure because it hadn’t occurred to me.
“Well, if, after a few weeks, you decide you don’t want to do it, none of us are going to think badly about it. We’ll be happy to have you back.”
That’s something a friend was able to identify might be happening, that I wouldn’t have been able to admit to myself at the time. The story’s more honest and more interesting because of that secondary character.
And my story will abound with them. The friends in New Orleans from before I left and after I get back. The people I met on the trail — some in passing for a quick lunch, others for a week, and a handful for 600 miles (and hopefully for a lifetime).
Through them I was able to learn something about myself and the world I’m in. They each have their own story, and they’re also an essential part of mine.
Who are some secondary characters you love in books you’ve read or movies you’ve watched? By learning about Jim, for example, we learn a ton about Huck Finn and the world he lives in. There’s a million examples, and if you have ideas, leave them in the comments, below, please!