There are numerous reasons to like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, but if I have to pick one, and given the standard size of these posts, I do – then it’s the full, dynamic characters the movie constructs.
This goes beyond the titular Black Panther himself and Killmonger, the villain. Most stories are going to invest a lot of time in their leads, and this one isn’t much different. Where Black Panther really builds its own quality, though, is through its supporting cast. The players movies bring in for a scene or three to propel the protagonist to the next objective, the ones that often have all the depth of cardboard.
By my improvised count, Black Panther has nine substantial side characters, of which 7 or so have real arcs and motivations. The question here, though, is not what those arcs are, but rather how we can find ways to incorporate similar arcs and depth into our own fiction.
Weirdly, I think the best place to define these arcs is outside of the story you are writing. Instead, take the character into the proverbial void of your notebook paper and sketch them out as if they were the star of their own lives. Put together a quick list of what they want, where they came from, and, maybe, some of their interests. It’s not reams of paper, and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
And guess what? You won’t use most of this in what you’re writing. You shouldn’t.
Black Panther certainly doesn’t. What it does, and what you should do, is use pieces from that list to flesh out the scenes in which these characters do appear. This is a minor spoiler from the movie, but one of the side characters remarks, in a scene, that she dislikes having hair. Later, she remarks that “guns are primitive”.
Neither of these remarks are necessary, neither help Black Panther stop the villains, but they add color and dimension to her character. They help us, the audience, form an idea of her world-view, which helps us make sense of her actions down the line. What we don’t get is some elaborate history of why she holds these opinions, or a drawn-out conversation about the lines. The creators may have those in their back pockets, but we don’t need those, because this is still a side character we’re talking about. We’re not that interested, but we should believe in their authenticity.
So now that we’ve scattered bits and pieces of our characters on a page, we can look at developing an arc for them. In simple terms, an arc is something that begins at one point and ends at another – in a story, that journey generally results in a change of perspective. In Black Panther, the arcs that characters go through are numerous and varied, though they’re not all complex, and most fit in with the progress of the story.
This last bit is important – you want your characters to develop as the plot moves along, and ideally all of them wind up somewhere different than where they started (otherwise, what’s the point?). But, especially for small characters, you don’t want to derail the narrative with low-stakes side stories just to check that arc box. Rather, try to define their own arcs to fit their role in the larger story.
In Black Panther, one of the characters firmly believes she can do more good by operating on her own than by being part of the established Wakanda government. She wants independence, and to do things her own way. Over the course of the story, in which she finds that her skills are needed in Wakanda to keep the things she loves, well, alive, she changes her mind.
She learns this not by embarking on some random solo journey that sees her absent at a time of great need, but rather by actually being present in Wakanda, where the main action is, and realizing how badly her home needs her there. The main story flows along, we never really leave the protagonist/antagonist, but she completes her arc nonetheless.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough – Black Panther has great characters, most of whom are more than one-scene jokes or plot devices, most of whom feel like real people, which is what makes it a great movie.
Check it out.