Wasted. Underutilized. It’s not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts expressed by reviewers. This time it was regarding Gary Oldham in Lawless. I’m a writer, but I have a background in theatre so when I view films I’m always watching a host of artistic concepts at once. One of many reasons I’ll watch a truly good film more than once, the way I’ll read a good book more than once. But I digress. Oldham plays a character whose role is minor in the story of the Virginia bootlegging boys as told by Matt Bondurant in his novel based on their story, The Wettest County in the World. (Bondurant is the grandson of Jack, the youngest of the trio.) Oldham is one of those gifted actors that many critics review expecting to see them stand the movie on its ear. If that doesn’t happen, they’ve been underutilized.
It is not my intent to say that characters are not important because they can certainly make or break a book or film. However, this belief that somehow a character is so ‘unimportant’ that the director has underutilized the actor bothers me. If a character is that unimportant, edit them out. Only characters that propel the action of the story or the arc of the main character forward should exist within the framework of the prose. If they impact the protagonist’s journey, how can they possibly be unimportant?
In the case of Jack Bondurant, Oldham’s character plays a role in Jack’s personal growth and in the lessons he learns in his entrepreneurial journey. While Floyd Banner (Oldham’s character), never interacts with Forrest or Howard onscreen, his actions with young Jack, impact the paths of the two older brothers as they are drawn into battles young Jack begins.
Every character in a story has a depth and a story. Whether we see all of it, it is there simmering just beneath the surface. Banner is a violent man, taking advantage of a fiscal opportunity. He sees in young Jack an earlier version of himself. Someone who wants more, who is willing to work hard and be hard. The fact is, Jack is not hard. The softest of the brothers, he’s the last one to resort to violence. His interactions with Banner spiral the brothers into a battle that grows more violent over time. Eventually, circumstances drive Jack to the type of violence Banner is capable of without blinking. For Jack, it takes the murder of Cricket who, “…never hurt nobody.”
Oldham, as usual, is wonderful. His role is not peripheral, it’s vital. Just because a character is not center stage, does not mean, he or she doesn’t play a vital role. As writers, when we create characters, we make decisions and difficult choices. These impact the characters and their journeys. We should never have to question whether an actor playing the role would be ‘wasted’. If that was the case, the story does not need that character.
Think about the minor characters in your story. In what way do they propel your story forward or your protagonist ahead in his journey? Do you have any characters you have edited out on subsequent drafts?