Imagine Bridesmaids without Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Her without Samantha, The King’s Speech without Logue, or The Dark Knight without The Joker. These movies simply wouldn’t be the same without these well-crafted secondary characters. While it’s easy to see what role the protagonist plays in the story secondary characters are often given a backseat and left underdeveloped. This is a missed opportunity to take your screenplay to the next level. Knowing how to create unforgettable secondary characters starts with understanding that their main role in the story is to shed light on the protagonist in some way. They do this by interacting with the protagonist in one of five archetypal ways – as the antagonist, the best friend, the love interest, the mentor, or the fool.
These archetypal secondary characters create conflict, move the plot forward and are the catalyst for the protagonist’s transformation. The relationship the protagonist forms with these secondary characters informs their overall arc and how these relationships are resolved is a key element of the story. This is some pretty heavy lifting for characters that are often relegated to the sidelines. Crafting the kind of unforgettable secondary characters that are unique and three dimensional will help elevate your story and ensure they feel anything but minor.
Definition of a Secondary Character
While the general definition of a secondary character is anyone who isn’t the protagonist this can be broken down further. For example in The King’s Speech the main character is Albert, secondary characters are Logue, King Edward, The Archbishop, Albert’s Wife and King George while there are also minor or tertiary characters such as the Chauffer and BBC Announcer.
Shed Light on the Protagonist
Ultimately we are social animals defined by our relationships. If we were to look through a stranger’s cell phone contacts or search through their Facebook friends we’d be able to tell a lot about them. This is true of our protagonists as well. Secondary characters serve the story by shedding light on the various facets of our main character. Much like a diamond these characters show us different parts of who they are and help them to feel three dimensional through their relationship with them. When thinking about your secondary characters think about what aspect of the protagonist you want to bring out and shed light on.
Approaching your secondary characters with these five archetypes in mind can help you determine how best to do this.
Secondary characters interact with the protagonist in five archetypal ways: Antagonist, Best Friend, Love Interest, Mentor and Fool. While this varies depending on the genre of your story (for example a love interest will play a greater role in a romance) and sometimes these roles are combined (for example a best friend might also be a fool) it can be helpful to define what function the secondary character serves in this archetypal way.
The antagonist creates conflict for the protagonist. They impede the action, stand in the protagonist’s way, interfere with their external and/or internal goals and help to move the plot forward. They create an opportunity to see our protagonist under pressure as they handle conflict. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave and The Joker in Batman Returns.
The best friend character brings out the protagonist’s inner world and gives them an opportunity to share their thoughts. They are also a way to show our main character in an intimate, non-sexual relationship. For example Amy in Her, Kowalski in Gravity, Patsey in 12 Years A Slave.
The love interest helps the protagonist to grow romantically and moves the plot forward. They can also create conflict much like an antagonist and provide opportunities for humor. They show how our main character handles love, intimacy, sexuality and conflict. Think Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, Officer Rhodes in Bridesmaids and Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
The mentor instructs and guides the protagonist, offers words of wisdom, encouragement and support. They help to move the plot forward and are often a catalyst for change. They create an opportunity for the protagonist to grow internally often via conflict initially. For example Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech, Mark Hanna in Wolf of Wall Street, Bobbi in Wild and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid.
The fool shows or contrasts the protagonist’s lighter side. They add levity and humor and create an opportunity to illuminate how our protagonist handles funny situations. For example Megan in Bridesmaids, Dug in Up, Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine and Alan in The Hangover.
What role your supporting character plays depends on what you need to bring out in your protagonist. In making choices around your secondary characters ask yourself what information do we need to learn about the protagonist in order to understand their journey? What relationship will bring out this quality, trait or transformation? Answering these questions will help you to determine what secondary characters you can use to do this.
Secondary characters play a slightly different role in dual protagonist films such as The Heat, Toy Story, Lethal Weapon and Sideways, ensembles like Little Miss Sunshine and Guardians of the Galaxy and multiple storylines like Crash or Pulp Fiction.
In these situations the secondary characters often play multiple roles for example Mullins in The Heat is antagonist, best friend, mentor and fool but her main function is still to shed light on the protagonist. Even in an ensemble and multiple storylines one character generally emerges as the protagonist and the secondary characters revolve around them. We see this in Sheryl (the mother) in Little Miss Sunshine and in Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.
Ultimately movies are about transformation and we invest 90 plus minutes of our time to see how the protagonist will change and heal. The way we do this is through relationship to one another. One of the ways to ensure emotional impact is to use your secondary characters to show this change particularly at the end of your story.
Producer Lindsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility, The Firm, Nanny McPhee) has done considerable research on the psychology of storytelling and found that movies end on the highest peak of emotional satisfaction when the protagonist’s “positive accomplishment is shared with someone they love.” (You can find Lindsay’s excellent TEDx talk called Saving the World vs. Kissing the Girl on YouTube)
We see this with Albert and Logue in The King’s Speech, Carl and Russell in Up, Jamal and Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, Mullins and Ashburn in The Heat, Solomon and his Family in 12 Years A Slave among others.
As you can see secondary characters are anything but minor. Using the five archetypes as a starting point we can shed light on the protagonist and bring dimension to the story. Fully realized secondary characters elevate your screenplay so that it will grab the reader, create roles actors want to play and attract financing and distribution all while telling a meaningful, entertaining story.
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