Screenwriters rightly focus on making their protagonists as strong as possible. However, the secondary characters that fill out your story and world deserve their time in the sun. When done right you can devise characters like Han Solo, Doctor Watson, or Furiosa. These side characters add rich elements to your story’s world, and their pre-existing relationships to the protagonist can increase the dramatic power of your script. When done poorly you can distract from the main story and build a stumbling block for the reader.
I’ll highlight the most common types of secondary characters and how to integrate them into your story. Remember, these types are not mutually exclusive, so feel free to mix and match wherever you see fit! Remixing common tropes is a great way to keep your characters fresh.
What is a Secondary Character?
Put simply, a secondary character is rarely the focus of the story or the central figure, but someone who assists, disrupts, or otherwise complicates the main plot of the story. They can be inconsequential to the plot or they can be the lynchpin that keeps everything together. They can be in every single scene, or they can be in just one.
Writing a protagonist is where a lot of the dramatic heavy-lifting is done in screenwriting, but secondary characters offer a screenwriter an opportunity to flex some of their other writing muscles in the pursuit of constructing characters that give the world extra depth.
The Comic Relief
This ever popular side character is always present around the periphery of the story ready to deliver a biting remark at a moment’s notice or lighten the dramatic load. The character archetype has existed since classical theatre for good reason. However, while the comic relief is a useful character, there are many common pitfalls to avoid.
Firstly, having your comic relief be too present or too invasive can provoke the inverse reaction in an audience, evoking annoyance, not laughter. This happens if the comic relief is given too much prominence or starts to directly challenge the tonal balance of the show. Sometimes the comic relief can become all about the jokes and no longer resembles a real human being.
Luckily, the fixes for these problems are relatively simple. If the comic relief is affecting the tonal balance of your script, have them take a back seat for a while. No period of time will feel darker when the usual presence of laughter is sullen and silent. Although it may be tempting to fill your comic relief character with as many jokes as you can fit into their dialogue, consider saving some of your jokes so that you can present your comic relief as a real character first, then the jokes afterwards.
Some great examples of the comic relief character are Korg from Thor: Ragnarok, the Fool in King Lear, or Genie from Aladdin. If you’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok you probably remember it as being full of laughs, but it’s actually laden with complex drama that could bog down this superhero romp through fantastic worlds. Korg is the perfect antidote to this problem. To keep the world from feeling too dark or heavy, a cutting remark from Korg instantly lifts the mood.
The Thematic Megaphone
A screenplay follows a character slowly understanding the truth of a universal theme. However, it’s nigh-on impossible for them to come to any revelations by themselves. While antagonists and plot events can help drive the theme home, secondary characters are exceptionally useful in embodying the theme itself.
This works best if your theme forms an argument. For example, if your thematic argument states “Humanity is stronger together” a great idea for a side character would be someone who embodies this worldview with every action they take. This allows the protagonist to gain a window into a different way of living.
However, the same rules of theme that apply to the protagonist apply to the thematic megaphone. Having the secondary character outright state the theme put you at risk of being too on-the-nose. One potential way of fixing this problem is by making this character a mentor figure. Who better to dispense nuggets of thematic wisdom than a mentor?
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Great examples of the thematic megaphone come in the form of Obi-Wan Kenobi in most of Star Wars, the tragic trajectory of MacDuff in Macbeth, or the equally devastating journey of Brooks Hatlen from The Shawshank Redemption. It’s no mistake that some of the greatest quotes from the original Star Wars come from Obi-Wan. The dramatic role of the mentor figure allows writers to slip wisdom into the story without it feeling too on-the-nose. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone describe Obi-Wan’s writing as on-the-nose!
The Plot Hinge
As much as we like to keep our plot mechanics hidden under several layers of cleverness and characterization, sometimes there’s no avoiding that in order for the plot to function a side character has to step in and take action.
This can be a really useful way of delivering exposition in an interesting manner. A character could read an email essay that explains the next crucial plot point, or a character they met earlier can deliver the same information in a way unique to them. What would The Breakfast Club look like without The Principal enforcing the plot with an iron fist?
Of course the plot hinge can be an empty figure. If the plot hinge is little more than walking exposition deliverer then you’ve got a problem. The solution is to imbue them with rich characterization. Consider using a tip from our article on creating great characters and chronicle the lives of your secondary characters to fully flesh them out.
Even if they are still just delivering exposition, masking it in fascinating characterization can keep it from being so obvious. Imagine your protagonist is being told the location of a nearby ticking time-bomb. Is it more interesting if a boring man in a suit dryly delivers the location, or a child with a strange demeanor and distant look?
Marsellus Wallace classifies as a plot hinge in Pulp Fiction, as do the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet, and the aforementioned Principle in The Breakfast Club. In the scene below the Principle establishes himself both as an antagonistic figure to the kids and as a crucial exposition deliverer. However, it makes perfect sense to have a Principle tell students why they’re there and what they’re going to be doing for the next eight hours.
Everyone loves a lancer. The lancer’s role is to openly challenge the protagonist’s worldview and is uniquely confrontational with the “moral” side of the story’s plot. To be clear, they’re not an antagonist. Usually they’re fighting for the same cause as the protagonist even though their attitude and methods are radically different.
The lancer or foil is the essential rogue character, someone who’s willing to do whatever’s necessary for the greater good. They’ll often flirt with the boundaries of the law and frequently find themselves on the wrong side of prison bars. However, this doesn’t make them a fundamentally bad person, just a little jaded. In a word, they’re cool and aren’t confined by the restrictive codes of the protagonist.
Which provokes an important question: Should the Lancer be the protagonist? Too often emerging writers craft a story where their protagonist is a stoic moral hero, but the most interesting character is the lancer that challenges their worldview. If a secondary character is more interesting than your protagonist then you’re in trouble.
If you find yourself in this situation the best thing to do may be to keep the lancer exactly as they are, but instead focus on building up your protagonist so that they stand on equal footing.
Some of your favorite lancers may be Han Solo in Star Wars, Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet, or Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. Han Solo is probably the most famous modern example of lancer. Compare honest and good Luke to this rogue who whiles away his days in a Tatooine cantina. They’re perfect foils for each other and though they always end up fighting on the same side, the writing makes it clear that they approach their life in radically differing ways.
The Love Interest
Although this kind of side character is diminishing in popularity, their impact on popular culture is immense. For a long while the love interest was the reason many people went to watch movies. Is there anything quite like being swept up in a love story amidst an adventure plot?
This character appeals to something very primal (and let’s be frank, sexual) within us. If a movie’s chief goal is to evoke emotions, then feeling a little bit of passion in the overwhelming sweep of romance is just another tool in the storyteller’s toolbox to keep the audience engaged with the story.
However, the love interest has a particular propensity to being simply sexual window dressing. Think about almost any Bond girl for the first thirty years of the franchise. The love interest too often exists merely to titillate and not meaningfully advance or expand the story. If your love interest is lacking, you need to fix it fast. Modern audiences are quick to point out lacklustre love interests in films.
The easiest way of keeping your love interest is to break free from, change, or subvert common tropes of the character. One of the more common ways is to turn the damsel in distress from a passive object into an active character in the story. Play with gendered expectations of who and what a love interest should be. Perhaps even question whether you really need a love interest in the first place. Take a gander through the TV Tropes page on love interests and see if you can rework any of these well-worn archetypes in your script.
Strong examples of the love interest come in the form of the eponymous Annie Hall, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, or Ilsa from Casablanca. Ilsa is not just an object of Rick’s (the protagonist’s) desire. She is a complicated character that has a genuinely difficult moral quandary to solve. She authentically loves both Rick and Laslo and has to come to terms with the role of love in a world going straight to hell. It’s riveting stuff, and it’s no wonder her character is fondly remembered.
The archetypes I’ve listed are what are called tropes, repeated plot elements across many different kinds of stories. What was once an original idea is repeated time and time again until it becomes a little tiring. To be clear, a trope is not an inherently bad thing. We love them for a reason. However, if you make no effort to divert away from the most standard version of a trope then you risk boring your reader.
This is why I recommend mixing and matching side character tropes. Figure out how to combine certain archetypes to generate new kinds of characters. Maybe you can subvert the reader’s preconceptions of what that particular archetype’s role in the story is. Or perhaps you can try and come up with an entirely original archetype of your own!
Think about Marla in Fight Club. She’s certainly a lancer to the protagonist, but her relationship to the protagonist is what complicates and expands the core themes of the film; Additionally, she firmly takes the role of the love interest, neatly embodying three archetypes at the same time.
Another example may be Cliff from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He is a perfect kind of side character, an enigma that doesn’t necessarily have to be unwrapped. Instead, we’re shown his enigmatic day-to-day life where he functions as a lancer to Rick Dalton, a Plot Hinge when it comes to the film’s finale, and comic relief in his strange manner and witticisms.
The limitations are endless. My only recommendation is to not default to writing a character you’ve already seen. Use your knowledge of these secondary character archetypes to try and create something completely original.
Use your newfound to invigorate your story with rich secondary characters that compliment the plot, protagonist, and themes. Feel free to remix these archetypes to surprise and delight your audience too. Most of all, make sure each of your characters makes their mark on the story. If the story could function without them then maybe they shouldn’t be in it at all.