Got a sidekick?
I don’t mean in real life! (although maybe you do. If so, I hope you also have a kickass soundtrack.)
Writing secondary characters with depth and voice is often what separates a good story from a great one, and I have an example for you from a movie!
In The Life Aquatic, one of the crew is introduced at the very start of the movie inside of a movie as Klaus Daimler, German, engineer.
He has maybe a full page of lines throughout the entire film, but every line furthers his story a little more. He has a complete character arc with a want, a try/fail cycle, an emotional breakthrough, and a resolution.
His tiny side-story elevates the entire movie with a simple page of lines carefully acted. This video clip captures the comedy and emotion.
At the failed movie premier in the start of the movie itself, Klaus introduces his nephew to his boss and Captain, Steve Zissou (the main character). It’s clear Klaus is proud to work for Steve, and as anyone who works in such a small, tightly-knit business knows, he feels like they are all family.
When another man, Ned, enters the scene as Steve’s “long-lost” son and is invited to join the crew, Klaus is filming them on the beach. He cuts off the camera in dismay. He tells Steve he doesn’t want Ned to join them.
Later, he confronts Ned, jealous and defensive. Klaus threatens Ned and tries to drive him out of the crew-family.
Klaus is hurt and surprised when Ned pushes back, and Steve (true to his character) is oblivious of their rivalry and how Klaus feels usurped.
During the intense action-rescue scene, Klaus has his emotional low-point. He feels left out and alone. He complains that he’s always B-squad. Steve reassures him that he’s the leader of B-squad and always thought of him as a “baby brother.” Klaus counters with I’ve always thought of you as my dad.
It’s all dry humor and incredibly well done with timing and Willem Dafoe’s acting. His body language and facial expressions are just exaggerated enough to keep it farce, but only just so. You still feel the emotional stings, and then the triumph when Klaus finds his happy ending.
Klaus has his own story, and he is the hero of it.
The actual movie has absolutely nothing to do with Klaus and his need to be First Son to Steve, but that plot thread strengthens the rest of the tale. It lends realism, complexity, emotional resonance, and when he is fuzzy in the background giving the Zissou-ho! secretly with Ned and Steve, your heart breaks a little.
Having Seu Jorge sing David Bowie covers throughout in Portuguese doesn’t hurt, either. A soundtrack to accompany a sidekick…
For more writing tips and inspiration, check out my Patreon!