Friday, November 30, 2012

Breathing Life Into A Large Cast of Characters

"In 1899, the streets of New York City echoed with the voices of Newsies...On every street corner you saw them carrying The Banner, bringing you the news for a penny a pape."
 How can people not like this movie???? Seriously! I am shocked when I express my adoration of it, and people laugh. Have they never seen this piece of genius? (Christian Bale said, “You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to.”) I'm one of those people. Sadly, I've never seen the Broadway version of it. But I've got a dream...

The movie came out while I was in college, and I was unexcited when my mom wanted me to see it--a musical about child labor. Thanks, Mom.

Not long after that, I memorized it. Pieces of it anyway. After I had children of my own, they loved Newsies as much as I did. We watched it over Thanksgiving vacation this year. ("How could you find time for this, when you are slaving away on your newest Nanowrimo masterpiece?" you may ask, but that's a question for a whole other post. Sorry.) One of the things that make Newsies great is its well-developed minor characters.

If Jack Kelly is going to become the leader of the Newsboys Union, he needs a few people to lead, right? But the story isn't about them. It's about Jack. All he really needs are some faceless boys dancing behind him, cheering occasionally. Yet I know them, and I love them, even the ones that barely had a line to say. Here's how I think the authors (Bob Tzudiker and Noni White) pulled it off:

Newsies: The Broadway Musical

Group Consciousness
Right off the bat, we learn that the newsies are poor orphans and runaways, without a leader. Some of them sleep on the streets. The lucky ones live in the Newsboy Lodging House, which is a huge dormitory filled with boys. When the kindly landlord wakes them up first thing in the morning, they are clearly exhausted. Like most boys, however, they wake up quickly, and spend their morning hitting each other and jumping off things.

However, these boys have grown-up responsibilities. The nuns give them bread for breakfast, and then the newsies hurry off to see the day's headlines. A dull headline might mean the difference between starvation and a good meal. These kids also have to worry about bullies, of course. What kid doesn't? But loyalty is important to the Newsies, and they protect each other's back.

Every single one of them seems confidant in the life they have chosen, and they carry their burdens lightly. It almost seems like a happy life. Then they get their day's papers. Taking a collective breath, they disperse into the streets. You realize that those few moments of camaraderie are all they get. The Newsies lead a remarkably solitary life.

When you have a large cast of characters that all have the same purpose--in this case, surviving on the streets by selling newspapers--allowing them to have a group consciousness can imbue them all with the beginnings of a personality without having to build each one from scratch individually.

In Newsies, none of the minor characters ever truly deviate from the group consciousness, or at least not in a way that a rousing song can't fix. In a book, there would probably be more time to allow them to walk their own paths.

Individual Personalities

Still, they have their own personalities. They each have two or three unique things about them, and every sentence they say; every moment they spend on screen, is spent highlighting those individual differences. Here are a few examples

Racetrack: The Witty Gambler with the Charm

Even Racetrack's name tells you what makes him unique. He's a gambler, though he looks like he's maybe fourteen, tops. When Jack (Cowboy) gets in a fight with the two bullies, Oscar and Morris, you can hear Racetrack shout , "Five to one that Cowboy skunks them. Who's betting?"

Racetrack is a charmer and a gambler, but he is also brave to the point of stupidity when it comes to defending women and his friends. The idioms he uses, the way he speaks to adults, every single moment of his on-screen time is spent hammering that into our heads.

Midway through the movie, Racetrack is dragged to the police station. He was knocked unconscious while trying to protect a singer named Mette during a riot. After Racetrack and his friends are arrested and fined $5.00 each, he speaks to the judge on behalf of everyone. "We ain't got five bucks...we ain't even got five cents. Hey, your honor, how about I roll you for it? Double or nothin'." Classic Racetrack.

Crutchy: The Cheerful, Independent Newsie With the Bad Leg

The origins of Crutchy's nickname are pretty obvious--he has a bad leg, so he walks with a crutch. Crutchy is perpetually cheerful and polite. In contrast to the other Newsies, who don't try to hide their dislike the man who sells them papers, when Crutchy greets him, he says, "Heya, Mr. Wisel." When he gets his papers, he thanks Mr. Wisel as profusely as if he'd just done Crutchy a personal favor.

Crutchy takes every opportunity to point out the good in his fellow Newsies. "You're getting the chance of a lifetime here, Davey," he calls at one point. "You learn from Jack, you learn from the best."

The first time the Newsboy Union gets into a fight, Crutchy is gleefully destroying newspapers, and doesn't notice that the police have arrived to restore order. Obviously he needs more time to escape than most of the Newsies, but he only looks up when Racetrack turns back to yell, "Crutchy! Scram! Scram!"

He doesn't scram in time, and gets beat up and sent to The Refuge, a jail for children run by the wicked Snyder. When Jack and David arrive to break him out, Crutchy is all smiles, as usual, but he explains that he can't go. "I ain't walkin' so good," he says. "Oscar and Morris kinda worked me over." Jack offers to carry him out, and for the first time, Crutchy's smile is gone. "Hey! I don't want no one carrying me. Not ever!" Then he protects Jack and Davey by distracting the warden so they can leave.

The next day, the whole group is antsy. They are scared about what they did yesterday, worried about the consequences and angry about the unfairness of it all. Davey is doing his best to keep everyone calm, but Jack's shout of "Let's soak them for Crutchy!" is like setting a match to gasoline. Although Crutchy doesn't get much more screen time, his memory serves as a rallying cry more than once.

And finally...Spot Conlon: The Young, Powerful Leader with the Great Eyes

Ah Spot. We don't even hear his name until half way through the movie, and yet, at least in my house, he gets more screen time than any other actor. (That's because we rewind the scenes he is in. J)

Spot is the leader of the Brooklyn Newsies, and his name strikes fear in the hearts of Newsies everywhere. Spot's Newsies are huge compared to everyone else, but Spot himself is nothing but a kid--about the same size as Racetrack, and quite a bit smaller than Jack. People listen to him though, because he is street-wise and a good leader, with a knack for military tactics.

When Jack, Davey and Boots arrive in Spot Conlon's territory, Spot has already heard about the Newsies' strike. He refuses to join. Davey does his best to sweet-talk Spot, and it  kind of works. Spot is flattered, and decides Davey is a great guy. However, he does not change his decision.

Spot: How do I know you punks won't run the first time some goon comes at you with a club? How do I know you got what it takes to win?
Jack: Because I'm telling you, Spot.
Spot: That ain't good enough, Jacky-boy. You gotta show me.

Spot saves the day more than once, with such great style and background music that I could watch it over and over, all these years later. However, Spot's dialect kind of bugs me, so there aren't a ton of great Spot quotes. There are a couple though:

Spot: Hey, your honor, I object.
The judge: On what grounds?
Spot: On the grounds of Brooklyn, your honor.

And my niece's favorite: "I say, that what you say, is what I say."

If you want well-rounded characters without granting them a lot of space in your writing, imbue them with a group consciousness, and two or three unique characteristics. Every word they say and every action they take should serve the double purpose of furthering your plot and developing those characteristics.

If you have any examples of books that do a great job developing a group of minor characters, I'd love to hear about them.


  1. I can't believe that we've been doing this blog for more than a year, and this is the first time we've talked about Newsies.

    Newsies is magic, and it's not just that amazing music, or Kenny Ortega's brilliant choreography,it's about the power of a large group of hot teenage boys coming together, with precision, to change their crappy circumstances.

    I love it, and I love the supporting cast. Are they the deepest, the most well-rounded characters even? No, but they're contradictions, which make them feel real. Crutchey has the most challenging life, but the best attitude. Spot has nothing, but has enormous pride in where he's from, and Racetrack doesn't have any money at all, yet spends every penny he gets on gambling. They are contradictions, they are the ones who are the most satisfied with the least, and they are the ones who put their satisfaction on the line, to make life better for everyone else.

    Also Christian Bale as Jack Kelly...swoon. The only show I like him better in is Swing High. Have you guys seen that one?

    1. I've never even heard of Swing High. I'm looking it up ASAP. I'm happy you share my love of Newsies, though I guess I'm not surprised. It seems like your kind of thing.

    2. I just realized it's Swing kids, not swing high.

    3. Ah, that will help with the netflix search. I haven't seen that one either. :)

  2. Excellent post. Group consciousness is a great way to think about it. Most of the examples I can think of at least start out with group consciousness, but often they later branch out to show more individuality. In Harry Potter, for instance, the scene with the sorting hat is one of those group consciousness moments. Over the course of seven novels we get to know everyone, but through at least a couple books, many characters fit this mold.

    It's been a while since I read them, but the Princess Academy and the Goose Girl by Shannon Hale might fit this category, too.

    Great stuff to think about!

    1. I hadn't thought about them...My daughter and I are about to start reading Princess Academy (I read it a long time ago, but don't remember enough about it to pick up the sequel yet.) I bet you're right about that one.

  3. For a book example, what about ENDER'S GAME? You don't have to read any of the following or parallel books to know the members of Ender's jeesh.

    1. That's exactly the book I thought of too, Ann. As you can see though, my post was quite long enough without adding Orson Scott Card's brilliance into the mix.

  4. I've never seen Newsies. How did I miss it? I love musicals. I love Christian Bale. I'll have to search for it on Netflix, and rectify this immediately.

    Great Post Melanie!!

    1. Let me know how you like it. It's one of those movies people either love or hate. You've got to be prepared for some cheesy-ness, and as long as you're ready for that, you're guaranteed to enjoy it.

  5. Terry Pratchett is one of the best authors I can think of for breathing life into every single character he brings forth. He juggles a dizzying amount of characters in each book, whether it's the men of the Watch, Granny Weatherwax and the witches, or the gaggle of wizards at Unseen University (dried frog pills, anyone?).
    Monstrous Regiment is one of the best examples of this, and an awesome book all around.

    1. I've really got to give him another chance. I can't remember what turned me off about his writing--I think I started with one of his odder books and wasn't prepared for what I got. You are forcing me to reconsider my opinion though.

    2. Yeah, some of the older ones - particularly the first seven or so books - are a little dense and hard to get through. Start with Men at Arms, or Witches Abroad, or Lords and Ladies. All of those had me near crying with laughter on several occasions. Give one a go - you won't be sorry. :)

      At some point, I'll do a post about Terry Pratchett similar to the one I did about Diana Wynne Jones.

    3. I might beat you to it. I adore Terry Pratchett. You could also start with the bromiliade trilagy, nation, or Johnny and the dead.

  6. What?! There is a musical starring Christian Bale, and I've never seen it?! I must correct this wrong immediately.

  7. I have never seen Newsies either! I'm at a loss for good examples of this in books I've read, but I think I've already established that I like to wallow in a POV character's thoughts :) A lot of short stories use a larger cast of characters and a more distant POV. The Lottery comes to mind, and of course in All Summer in a Day all of the other children (besides Margot) are kind of a single force. But in that case (as in many outcast stories) the crowd is almost one character, and Bradbury doesn't do much to distinguish its members from each other.


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