Disclaimer: All mentioned films are the property of Disney and any original owners of the source material. There might be SPOILERS when I describe works.
Made you look at Li Shang’s abs. Or are you reading this straight from the blog? Oh, then in that case, there’s a shirtless Li Shang somewhere in here.
So I was able to watch Moana the other day. Long story short, I didn’t care much for it, thought it wasted a lot of its potential coddling the main character, but it got me thinking about a blog topic. So today, I’m gonna be focusing on a vital component of any story’s development and world-building: The Supporting Cast.
First, my customary ‘quick’ intro: The Supporting Cast is distinct from not just the main character, but the main character’s team, and even the villains. They’re the friends, family, colleagues, or community that serve to inform us about something in the main character or the world at large. Not as directly tied in the plot, but still there, and definitely providing a relevant idea. From the most intimate surrogate guardians to the abstract concept of a community, they’re both setting and character.
Yes, you can make a story solely to explore ideas, or a character, or a setting, where there are only obstacles and no personal connection. But no man is an island. Without a supporting cast, the Main Characters are simply voices in the wilderness. A single highlight upon a blank canvas or tapestry with no contrast, no context, no complements. And while that sort of art might make sense to its creator, it NEEDS more if it’s to make sense to others.
They might only be there for a short period of the story. The Main Character might not even think about them that much at the end of the tale. But the key point of a Supporting Cast is this: They’re there to highlight something about a character by making them focus on something else.
Right, so that’s the idea behind a Supporting Cast. They’re not directly involved, but they’re still tied in. They are, essentially, the backstory, the background, the flavour text in the game manual, which informs whether an element blends in or stands out.
To explore how a supporting cast can be used or misused, we’ll go with the Disney formula. The Disney formula is simple:
- The Main Character is often a rebel, or different from everyone else.
- Society and the supporting cast are there to get them to fit in, sometimes cruelly (“Fit in or else, you freak”) or kindly (“It’s for your own good, we only want you to be happy”). At best, you get a sort of loving ignorance (“Oh, you so crazy, but you’re a nice kid”).
- There’s usually a mentor that encourages the Main Character to be an individual. They’re either the crazy folks who ‘truly get’ the Main Character, or more realistically (and hence, rarer in fiction), they are family members or intimate friends who are able to support their loved ones.
- Now, plot happens. The what of the plot doesn’t matter as much as the what it’s for, which is usually this: First, the Main Character tries to do something different, but gets rebuffed, sometimes harshly. Then they’re thrown into an adventure, and given their room to grow into self-discovery.
- Things resolve in one of two ways: Either they learn they were right all along and use their uniqueness to triumph, or they mature enough to learn what their Supporting Cast tried to teach them. Either way, they win, they go back, and there’s a touching reunion where one party tells the other “You were right and I was wrong.”
Got that formula in mind? Great! Now we’ll just quickly go into how it can be used or misused, where supporting casts are either wasted, effective, or integral.
Ah, Moana. Though Dwayne Johnson was the greatest thing about you (props to the writing for his character Maui), you still wasted things like ‘family’ or ‘proper characterisation’ just so you could spend half your running time harping on about how ‘special and independent and adventurous’ your heroine is.
Pictured above: Literally the only two characters you need to care about.
Moana is the formula deployed in its BAREST form, and I mean BAREST. Her supporting cast is only around long enough to reinforce Moana’s main ideas, reducing them to little more than concepts instead of individuals. They do the job, but little else.
Worse still, once Moana sets off on her adventure, they are practically NONEXISTENT. They don’t show up again until the end except as a token nightmare, they are given merely lip service, and there is no sign whatsoever that any of them mean anything to her except for her supportive grandmother. Every other word about Moana’s characterisation can be boiled down to this idea: “Am I the chosen one, or am I not the chosen one?”
That’s it; no missing her parents, no moments about what she misses about home. Home is not even home; it is a THING that is there for her to save. Her own PARENTS are not even people; they are just mouthpieces to go “Moana, no” or “Moana, yes” with some halfhearted backstory tacked on to only ONE of them.
Now, that may be poor characterisation. But the real reason they are only the barest minimum of a supporting cast is this: They contribute little, and their presence is NOT felt at all. They are technically essential to give motivations and contrasts, but they do NOTHING else, either on their own or in relation to the heroine.
This is what happens if you make the world revolve not just around a Main Character, but ONLY when the Main Character is around.
This hocutus-pocutus goes out to my sister-in-law who also loves this movie, heyo!
Pictured above: The face I make when giving a shout out.
Ah, Sword in the Stone. Something of a cult classic compared to the bigger Disney films, I’d consider this a solid ‘control group’ for how to use a Supporting Cast.
First, let’s get things straight: Yes, they follow the formula. Yes, they are also there mostly to say “Here are our ideas, and you are wrong for not following them, wait you were right all along.” But before you get into a hissy fit about how “Oh, of course they make him look special” let me point out how it succeeds as a Supporting Cast. After all, formulae exist for a reason. Sometimes, they just work.
Now, Sword in the Stone’s Supporting Cast does exist mostly to contrast with Merlin and Wart. But this is why they succeed, and this is the most fundamental aspect of any supporting cast: They stick around and mean something.
Even though their ideas are firmly set against the Main Characters, even when those characters go off on adventures that have nothing to do with them, Wart’s adoptive family is persistently around in the story. They are there to show Wart has a family, even if they aren’t always warm to him. They are there to show how much their ideas have influenced him, where even when they’re not around, he and Merlin still keep their ideas around to compare and contrast.
We take it for granted that they’re just ‘there’, the lame family that won’t ever ‘get’ us. But it’s PRECISELY because they’re ‘there’ all the time that they become more than just ideas: They’re his family. And because we DO see them as his family, it makes their conflicts stand out all the more. Not convinced yet? Then tell me: How would you feel if the family that you always knew told you your dreams were a waste of time and punished you for following them? How would you feel if you were in Wart’s place, tearfully defending the one man who ever taught you that you could be more than what you were?
Means a lot more than if some online hater did it, huh?
Pictured above: Now that song is playing in your head. You’re welcome.
And now we reach the peak of Supporting Casts: Mulan. Not the only great example, but one which offers a good contrast to Moana in terms of having a strong female lead challenging her society’s norms. True, it has entered our collective minds as the paragon of a strong female lead, and it has one of the internet’s favourite songs of all time. But more than that, the supporting cast is diverse and colourful. Though played for cartoony laughs and built up around gimmicks, they also have their own agency and personality that help shape not just Mulan but each other.
First, let’s take what I said about Sword in the Stone. Good control group, right? Mulan’s family, her community, and her new ones in the army are there. They have ideas. Those ideas clash with what Mulan is all about, even as they work towards a shared goal. Had they followed the Moana method, they would have simply said “Mulan you no good soldier!” and do nothing until the end to say “Mulan you best soldier!” Instead, they have personalities, dreams, opinions, and internal conflicts.
But wait! It gets better! You get a whole bunch of Supporting Cast members, and some of them aren’t even directly related to her. You have the Imperial Court’s focus on the big picture, and Qi Fu’s being a giant pain in the ass while representing absolute legalism. You have her spiritual guardians having their own opinions and goals. You have her comrades who start out prickly but grow to see her as (ahem) ‘one of the guys’. And you have General and Captain Li, father and son. General Li doesn’t even DO anything with Mulan, yet he MATTERS because he’s the Cool Dad to Li Shang. And Li Shang is more than just Hot Bod Proven Wrong. He’s a guy who learns to see her as a person, falls short for a bit, then rises to the occasion.
And her father. Oh, Fa Zhu. So awesome he gets his own paragraph. This is a pillar of the community, a man not just respected, but beloved, calm but firm. A man who will truly understand his daughter and be there for her even after a FUBAR of an interview, but who will also give his life for his country. Not out of blind duty, but because it was RIGHT.
And that’s what makes this Supporting Cast one of the strongest in my memory: They grow. They display diversity that is endearing and realistic. They celebrate Mulan’s individuality while also challenging it. And these ideas are a consistent part of the movie and Mulan’s psyche. You never think that her family stops mattering once we go to the army, especially because they get ACTUAL character development and attention.
So there you have it. An explanation on Supporting Casts, a look at how Disney does them, and the range of how well or poorly they can be used.
BUT WAIT! While I’ve made my opinions pretty clear, I should note that there ARE still reasons for these differences (setting aside the obvious “You might disagree with my opinion”). Mostly, those reasons are either production-based (“We went back and forth and think this is the best focus for the story”) or creative-based (“This is the story I wanted to make, this is how I want to tell it”).
So before you take my word as law (don’t, just don’t ever, ever do that, I don’t even take my word as law), just remember: A story is its writer’s baby. And it’s up to them to decide how to tell it.