A Lesson from Miracle on 34th Street

Building on TP Jagger’s fabulous post on what writers can learn from Christmas songs, today’s post will explore what writers can learn from the classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street.  In case you aren’t familiar with this gem, here’s a quick description: when no-nonsense Doris Walker hires  a man to play Santa for Macy’s department store, she quickly finds out that while he is the Best Santa Ever, the man also genuinely believes he is Kris Kringle.  Doris, once burned by love, does not believe in Santa or other fantasies, and does not allow her daughter, Susan, to believe in Santa, either.  Kris Kringle sets to work on changing Susan’s mind, while Doris’ neighbor, Fred Gailey, tries softening Doris’ hard worldview.   When Kris’ mental health is challenged in court, everyone involved finds that their views of Christmas have changed because of meeting Kris.  (Note: This movie is so popular that it has been remade several times; do yourself a favor and watch the original 1947 version.)

miracle on 34th

See this one first!

There are four main characters in the movie: Kris Kringle, Doris, Susan and Fred, but the movie is well-buttressed by several secondary but important characters.  There is RH Macy, Doris’ boss, who insists on keeping Kris In spite of his apparent delusions because he is so popular with the customers.  Granville Sawyer is the company psychologist who takes a disliking to Kris, and forces the mental health hearing.   We meet the prosecutor and his family, as well as the judge in charge of the hearing and his political advisor, who reminds the judge that finding against Kris could create a public backlash.

Write your secondary characters as if they are the main characters.

What’s remarkable about all the characters is that while they exist to move the story along, they are also handled with much care and detail.  When I watched the movie this year, I could not help but marvel at how fully developed they were.  Each one brings to life the writing advice, write your secondary characters as if they are the main characters.  We know what each character wants, whether it’s boss man Macy wanting to beat rival Gimbels, or the political advisor seeking a winning election for the judge.  We also get to meet their families and see others interact with them, not just for the purposes of the story, but for their own sake.  You even know the opinions of the district attorney’s wife and meet the judge’s grandchildren.  (My favorite family background moment is when Kris questions whether the twitchy company psychologist is happy at home.  Mr. Sawyer does not respond immediately, but eventually announces, with a bit too much protestation and much manic plucking at the eyebrow, that he has been happily married to Mrs. Sawyer for many years, thank you very much.)

The next time you’re adding a minor character to your story, consider whether he or she (or it!) can be more than a cardboard cog for the story.  Do they have their own motivations and backgrounds?  How would they tell the story from their point of view?  And then, if you like, add your own cinematically-inspired writing advice in the comments below!

  1. Such good advice. Never stint on those “minor” characters. They supply so much texture to your story and your main characters. Loved the idea of telling the story from those minor characters’ pov. Good hint.

    Have a wonderful Christmas. See you in 2014.

  2. Thank you, Wendy.
    You gave me much to consider.