Roughness Part 2 supplement — Robert McKee’s Solar System

 
 Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose lectures and writing on story design have influenced a generation of screenwriters and novelists.  Image via  designersnotebook.com .

Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose lectures and writing on story design have influenced a generation of screenwriters and novelists.  Image via designersnotebook.com.

 

In his famous book on screenwriting, Robert McKee lays out a convincing picture of what a story’s cast of characters might accomplish:

Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as the planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets — all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ nature. 

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful.  This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters towards whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places.  These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.

Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side.  Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while Character D forces him first to cower in fear, then to strike out in fury.  The creation and design of Characters A, B, C, and D is dictated by the needs of the protagonist.  They are what they are principally to make clear and believable, through action and reaction, the complexity of the central role.

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, p. 379 

Consider, for instance, how The Mary Tyler Moore Show evokes this principle.  The show’s central character, Mary Richards, is the sun around which all other characters revolve.

 Clockwise from upper left: Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin McCloud.  Image via  abcnews.go.com .

Clockwise from upper left: Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin McCloud.  Image via abcnews.go.com.

 
  • Her best friend and neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), brings out the side of Mary that is cynical about life in a male-dominated culture.
     
  • Her other neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) creates a point of contrast for Mary’s down-to-earth side, her rejection of shallow, bourgeois mores. 
     
  • New writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin McCloud) brings out Mary’s idealism. 
     
  • Newsroom boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) activates her striving and desire for recognition.
     
  • Anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) brings out her principles.

And so forth. 

Notice how roughness and comic exaggeration characterize these supporting roles.  Their obsessions, their actions, their facial expressions reach extremes that Mary’s never do.  As in many sit-coms, the main character plays straight against everyone else in the cast.  Yet without the roughness, the flaws, embodied in the various supporting roles, the show does not feel complete.  Indeed Mary herself, per McKee’s insights, requires all of these characters orbiting around her to appear whole.


Thank you for reading.