The idea of having to write a cast of characters with 5, 10, 20 individuals with different opinions, lives, goals, personalities etc… seems scary doesn’t it?
In order to write a cast of characters that will make your story compelling and memorable there is just one thing that you need to do: look at the protagonist.
The protagonist is the center of the story, the one that (by making decisions, taking action and learning lessons) moves the story forward. Create a good protagonist that has both weaknesses and strengths (here’s a post about why your characters need weaknesses if you want to check it out), then look in depth into his flaws and talents, that’s where you’ll find the rest of your cast.
In his book “Story” Robert McKee writes:
“All other characters are in the story first and foremost because of the relationship they strike with the protagonist and the way each helps to delineate the dimensions of the protagonist’s complex nature”
The story, after all, is about the protagonist and how he can change or overcome a certain obstacle.
Inserting into the screenplay random secondary characters with random opinions that have nothing to do with the protagonist or the theme of the film won’t help you write a cast of characters that will make the audience love your story.
Even the villain must have a reason to exist other than being bad.
I call this the 50 Shades of Grey rule: if a character exists for the sole purpose of doing horrible things so that the protagonist’s bad actions seem less awful, that character shouldn’t exist and your protagonist needs a therapist.
Each individual in the story must serve a function, either to oppose the main character or help him, that’s why a large cast can be divided into two groups: the “Good guys” and the “Bad guys”.
It’s easier to talk about this kind of things using the characters of a well-known story, so here’s the cast Disney’s The Lion King,
(the best movie ever made according to the 5 years old me) as an example.
Start with the protagonist
Cute, adorable, funny and relatable little Simba is much more complex than what you may think. As a matter of fact, he is probably one of the most well rounded and complicated characters in Disney Classics history.
He is well-meaning but also rebellious. He admires his father but also envy his strength. He feels responsible for his father’s death but he tries as hard as he can to avoid going back to face his family and taking responsibility. All those contradictions in his personality make him a multi-dimensional character.
And it’s exactly from those contradictions that the rest of the cast is born. Each member of the cast embodies a quality or a flaw of Simba’s personality. This means that by interacting with each one of them Simba learns an important lesson about himself.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
Since The Lion King is an animated movie, it relies a lot on color and artwork to distinguish the villains from the sidekicks and the allies.
The “Good Guys” have light bright colors like beige and red, while the “Bad Guys” have darker colors like brown and black. I’m just saying this because many people seem to take seriously the conspiracy theory that says that Scar is supposed to represent black people because he’s darker than the other lions.
Anyway, the “Good guys” group is made of character with qualities that Simba already possesses or qualities that he doesn’t have but he needs in order to become a good king.
On the other hand, the “Bad guys” represent flaws that Simba possesses or that he has to get rid of in order to grow as a person (or… as a lion).
The Good Guys
Have you ever noticed that Mufasa seems to have almost no flaws? He’s brave, strong, fair, respected, beloved by his family and his subjects, basically perfect. And there’s a reason for that.
“But dad, you’re not afraid of anything”
When we’re little we tend to think about our parents as “perfect”, everything they do is right, everything they say is right, dad is the strongest man in the world and mom is the most beautiful woman in the world. Then puberty happens and we start to hate them.
As a little cub, Simba sees his father as the perfect king the same way a normal kid sees his father as the perfect used cars salesman. Because of Mufasa’s premature death, Simba never has the chance to see his flaws and he just keeps comparing himself to the perfect image he has of his father.
Throughout the movie Mufasa is a figure to look up to, both Scar and Simba are compared to him. But Simba is the only one that, in the end, manages to become like him because rather than abusing his power, like Scar, he remembers his father’s lessons and decides to take responsibility.
She’s always dismissed as the love interest or used for memes, but Nala plays a key role in the story. If she hadn’t left Pride Rock to look for help, Simba would probably have stayed with Timon and Pumba forever, and Scar would have continued destroying the kingdom.
“Danger? I laugh in the face of danger! Ah ah ah”
– Nala mocking Simba
She’s brave and loyal, in fact, she stays by Simba’s side into the elephant graveyard when they were little and helps him defeat Scar as an adult.
They’re young, carefree and confident just like Simba was before his father died. They appear in Simba’s life right when it seems that the youthful and happy part of him is fading, but those two manage to cheer him up and help him get back on his feet.
Unfortunately, they also represent a distraction. The Hakuna Matata lifestyle might be fun but it also prevents Simba from doing anything meaningful, he just strolls around eat bugs without having a goal or a purpose in life.
The Bad Guys
He doesn’t just manipulate Simba using his insecurity, he seems to be the incarnation of his insecurity.
Like Simba, he is someone who’s constantly reminded that he’s not as good as Mufasa (also they both throw a tantrum when they get compared to him).
Sarabi: “If you were half the king Mufasa was”
Scar: “I’m 10 times the king Mufasa was”
Simba: “You sound like my father”
Nala: “Good, at least one of us does!”
Someone who wants to be feared and respected but cannot physically intimidate anyone (little Simba can’t scare the hyenas with his roar and Scar says that he’s not strong enough to challenge Mufasa).
Scar even seems to know Simba’s insecurities so well that he just needs a few words to convince him of anything.
“Simba, what have you done?”
Even towards the end, when Scar realizes that he cannot manipulate Simba through his insecurity he uses his mother’s judgment instead and, like always, it works.
“Tell them, Simba. Tell them who is responsible for Mufasa’s death!”
They represent the part of Simba that wants to take the easy path. Like a much darker version of Timon and Pumbaa, they live an easy life eating the leftover of the lions and don’t do any of the work themselves.
But rather than being happy enough with this lifestyle, they want to break the rules so that they can be allowed to do what they want regardless of the consequences.
“I thought a king could do whatever he wants”
Even the comparison between the hyenas and the Nazi seems to be spot on, since people who follow dictators usually do it because that dictator proposes an easy solution that will magically get rid of all their problems.
And an easy solution is exactly what Scar proposes:
“Stick with me and you’ll never be hungry again”
Which sounds a lot like “if you stick with me, I will get rid of all the jews and Germany will be stronger” or “If you stick with me, I’ll get rid of all the immigrants and make America great again”. You know, the usual bs.
Anyway, each character manages to influence Simba and make him change because each one of them pulls a different sting. The Lion King succeeded because it focused on telling a story about the tragedy of a loss and all the impact it can have on the life of a kid.
Simba could have become an envious, power-hungry selfish king like Scar; he could have refused to become a king at all and lived the rest of his life wandering around with Timon and Pumbaa; he could have lost the final battle with Scar if Nala had decided to turn against him; or he could have decided to take the easy path like the hyenas and let Scar do whatever he wanted.
Thanks to those amazing supporting characters we get to see what could have happened to Simba if things went differently.
So basically if you want to write a cast of characters that will enrich your story all you have to do is think about what lessons your protagonist needs to learn and create characters that will help him learn those lessons.