Recently I watched the movie Hugo. It prompted me to think about storytelling, and about how difficult it is to create lifelike worlds on paper or screen. Sometimes writers focus so much on crafting their protagonist that they forget to also breathe life into the people who surround him. We human beings tend to be self-centered and inclined to view others only as they relate to ourselves, yet literature is supposed to help lift us out of ourselves and show us more about the world than we are capable of finding inside our own heads. Fiction in which non-protagonist characters have no meaning except in the way they relate to the protagonist’s goals and development is too “realistically” unreal—like our heads, it shows us only what we know already and fails to stretch the way we think about life.
Hugo contains plenty of whimsically fantastical elements, yet it is also an unusually real movie because even the minor characters are nuanced. Despite their brief appearances and scant dialogue, they are treated as individuals, and are not defined merely by their relationship to young Hugo. For example, consider the Station Inspector. Although he menaces Hugo’s daily life and treats orphans cruelly, harshness is not the entirety of his character. The movie hints at his childhood and wartime backstory, and sympathetically portrays his awkward attempts to kindle a romance with the flower seller. The movie is constructed as if the Station Inspector possesses neither more, nor less, of a right to happiness as anyone else. He is simply pursuing his misguided duty as he sees best (emphasized by the scene in which he matter-of-factly saves Hugo from a passing train, then immediately resumes his attempt to collar the boy). In fact, he even travels a bit of character arc on his own—and not merely for Hugo’s benefit. He does not simply soften through his new-found love and release the boy. Instead, his softening is not yet complete in the moment of Hugo’s capture, and the boy is saved only because the Station Inspector is offered a reason for mercy that is compatible with his sense of duty.
How is an author to create such lifelike nuance without burying their story under the weight of irrelevant information? In order to do this, every word must be purposeful. Perhaps every phrase should serve multiple purposes. A scene might center around our protagonist, yet also allow other people’s stories (or hints of stories) to weave through the main plot in a way that adds to the theme or connects to later events. The material in the story should all be relevant to the tale the author is telling—and affect the life of the protagonist—yet it should not all draw its meaning from the protagonist alone. Perhaps that can only happen if the author likes people.
It seems to me that an author who hopes to write in this style cannot do it artificially. Surely such an author must cultivate the compassion that sees others as intrinsically valuable human beings whose lives are interesting in their own way. The author should develop understanding for why people behave in the ways that they do, and the skill to communicate the individuality of humanity’s masses whilst they wander past the protagonist. Perhaps this is simply a way of life.