A few recent movies have got me thinking about the character we can call the “Gal at Home.” She’s the wife or girlfriend who stays at home while the male protagonist is off behaving badly, fighting bad guys, or saving the world from impending doom. Rebecca Keegan from the Los Angeles Times recently penned an article about a version of this character, the gal, specifically, wife, at home on the phone. Keegan notes that even the most gifted of actresses will often play small roles cheering on or worrying about the men in a crisis, from home, and usually over the phone.
In “Sully” Oscar-nominated Laura Linney plays the anxious wife at home to Tom Hanks’ heroic Captain Sully Sullenberger, dealing with the onslaught of attention and scrutiny after his Miracle on the Hudson water landing. And in “Deepwater Horizon” Kate Hudson plays the nervous wife at home to Mark Wahlberg’s oil rig worker who is saving his colleagues from fiery doom. Keegan notes that when those characters “dial into the story from outside the action they’re often there to remind the audience what the hero has to lose, like comfort, family or the love of a good woman… or as evidence of a tough guy’s softer side.”
I would add that they also exist to make things relatable for us non-heroes… we mere mortals who feel helpless, confused, anxious, or nervous as tragic and harrowing events unfold that we can’t control and can’t see. Hudson’s character knows something bad is happening but doesn’t know exactly what or whether her husband is safe. Can’t imagine selflessly running through fire on a collapsing oil rig to help rescue coworkers? Me either. Can’t image landing a packed jetliner on a frigid river? Nope. Not that either. But not knowing what is happening to a loved one or whether they are safe? Absolutely.
Would it be more interesting to see Laura Linney saving a jetliner full of people from a horrible crash while Tom Hanks worries at home? Or Kate Hudson carrying wounded oil rig workers to safety while Mark Wahlberg anxious waits for word at home with their daughter? Yes. I’m there on opening night! But that’s not what happened in the real events chronicled in both “Sully” and “Deepwater Horizon.”
The Gal at Home, or any supporting character outside of the action, and what purpose they serve, is an important for Writers to think about for fictional stories. Does your comedy’s male protagonist have a wife or girlfriend to show us that his stop off at the strip club is a bad idea? Does your adventure thriller have a Gal at Home to raise the stakes of your male protagonist taking extra big risks on his mountainous trek? Taking gender out of it, what purpose does your protagonist’s husband, boss, neighbor, or best friend have? Do they raise the stakes? Do they soften or humanize the protagonist? Create obstacles or conflict? Does your protagonist have a boss who sets an impossible deadline or doles out an impossible assignment? Or does the boss just do something or say something that your own boss once did that you thought was ridiculous? “What purpose do you serve?” is a basic but important question every Writer needs to pose of their supporting characters, especially to those Gals at Home.