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By Michael Schilf · February 12, 2010
Symbolic characters are supporting characters that represent something important to the hero. They can be a sign of the hero’s past, the hero’s flaws, or of who the hero is trying to become.
For the screenwriter, understanding supporting characters is indispensable. And even though there are a multitude of supporting roles, illustrated here are three types of symbolic character roles frequently used in stories.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” – the introduction from the 1930s radio program The Shadow
The Shadow, a crime-fighting vigilante, became one of the most famous pulp heroes of the 20th century and has been depicted in comic books, pulp novels, television, video games, and motion pictures. But The Shadow, a cloaked figure who had the power to “cloud men’s minds” so they could not see him, is in all of us. And it is this shadow within that often distorts our insight, blinding our virtue. If we’ve learned anything at all when it comes to the dark side of self, “Who watches the Watchmen?”
The Shadow as a supporting role (either as a split personality within the same character or as a separate character all together) mirrors the hero’s dark side. The Shadow is defined by the hero’s shortcomings and becomes a reflection of the protagonist’s flaws. The protagonist tries to avoid The Shadow so that he doesn’t have to confront his own faults and face the one thing he fears most: becoming The Shadow himself.
The Shadow in film:
Mr. Hyde (Spencer Tracy), the mysterious, violent, and cruel split personality of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Tracy). Jekyll is transformed into the evil Hyde after drinking a potion of his own creation. – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen), the gangster who used to run with a Irish Mob in Philadelphia before changing his name and identity to become the mild diner owner and family man Tom Stall (Mortensen). – A History of Violence (2005)
Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), the giant, raging, and impulsive humanoid monster alter ego of the withdrawn and reserved physicist Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) after Banner is accidentally exposed to the blast of a test dtonation of a gamma bomb he invented. – The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the evil wizard who fails to kill one-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), the only one who has the power to defeat “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”, leaving him with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead that forever links the two. – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), the villainous cyborg enforcer and Jedi Knight who acts as the supreme commander of the brutal Galactic Empire and tries to lure his son, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to join him and embrace the power of the Dark Side. – Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” [Nick] ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” [Gastby] cried incredulously. “Why of course you can.”
– from Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925)
The Ghost symbolizes the protagonist’s past, reminding him where he came from and why he has changed.
This supporting character is often a reminder of the reasons the hero refuses to go back to his old status quo. When this is the case, The Ghost acts as a visual motivator because the hero knows that if he fails to obtain his objective, he will fall back into The Ghost of his past that he has tried so hard to escape from.
If, however, the protagonist has already fallen, The Ghost now represents everything that was good about the protagonist’s past and most likely will become a helpful influence and aid to the hero as he attempts to return back to his grounded roots.
The Ghost in film:
Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), the early mentor to Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) who trains him with martial arts and combat, but later is revealed as an amoral criminal himself, forcing Batman to consider his own identity, and fighting with the side of morality. – Batman Begins (2005)
Nick (Christopher Walken), the best friend and Vietnam comrade to Michael (Robert De Niro), whom are both POWs and forced to play Russian roulette for entertainment by their sadistic guards. Both men escape, but the event forges very different life paths. – The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), the arrogant, near-sighted, aspiring gun-fighter who visits the farm of William ‘Bill’ Munny (Clint Eastwood), seeking to recruit him to take up his gun one more job and kill the cowboys who cut up a prostitute. – Unforgiven (1992)
Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow), the attractive, careless young woman, who had been courted by Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford) five years earlier, but due to their different social standing, married the arrogant “old money” millionaire Tom Buchanan instead. – The Great Gatsby (1974)
Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), the best friend and comrade to Harry Feversham (Heath Ledger) and only one of his closest friends and fiancée not to censure him for cowardice for resigning his commission as signified by the delivery of four white feathers. – The Four Feathers (2002)
“The universal object and idol of men of letters is reputation.” – John Adams
The Idol is a supporting character that the protagonist looks up to, wants to become, and/or worships. Simply put, The Idol is the hero’s role model. Whatever the hero is concerned with, enthusiastic about, or motivated to do – archeology, flying, getting the girl – the Idol is the expert in that field but is often unavailable or unreachable. The Idol’s expertise, however, usually becomes an integral part of the plot because the hero must use the idol’s know-how to help attain the ultimate goal.
Often, and understandably, the Idol is seen as a mentor or guide for the protagonist; however, this teacher/student relationship does not always materialize, nor is it necessarily even an option.
The Idol could be a character from the hero’s past, someone he is trying to live up to or remember the lessons already learned. The Idol could be a person who is out of reach, someone that the hero is proud to finally meet, yet when the opportunity arrives, the idol is quick to disappoint.
The Idol in film:
Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), the empathetic and seasoned sergeant to Pvt. Chris (Charlie Sheen), who reports fellow Sgt. Barnes actions of shooting a defiant Viet Cong woman in the head to Captain Harris, a moral decision that costs Elias his life. – Platoon (1986)
Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn), the aging, wheelchair bound, once legendary dodgeball champion, who declares himself coach to Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) and his Average Joe’s dodgeball team. – Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
Trent (Vince Vaughn), a loud, charismatic, and often obnoxious aspiring actor, who makes it his personal mission to teach his best friend Mike (Jon Favreau) how to get over his ex-girlfriend and embrace the “So money” swinging lifestyle. – Swingers (1996)
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the charismatic but nihilistic neo-Luddite and anarcho-primitivist with a strong hatred for consumer culture. He is the hero as well as alter-ego to The Narrator (Edward Norton) and describes his ideal world as a neo-paleolithic paradise, in post-apocalyptic urban ruins. – Fight Club (1999)
Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the wealthy, unscrupulous corporate raider and hero to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the young stockbroker desperate to succeed. Gekko becomes a symbol of unrestrained greed, with his signature line, “Greed, for lake of a better word, is good.” – Wall Street (1987).