Why Your Secondary Characters Matter Just As Much As The Principals

The characters in films and TV shows fall into two main characters – MAIN CHARACTERS and SECONDARY CHARACTERS.

The main characters drive the story, while the secondary characters support them and illuminate the theme of your film script.

Although the main characters occupy more screen time, they should be written as fleshed out characters. You still need to attract quality actors to play those roles.

Types Of Secondary Characters

Secondary characters fall into two camps; the VITAL secondary characters and the INCIDENTAL secondary characters

Vital characters serve the main character’s arc and are usually allies, friends, mentors and family. They spend considerable screen time with the main character and help them achieve (or obstruct) their goal. They represent different aspects of the main character’s personality by testing them. They are allies and sounding boards which guide the main character towards their goal.

Incidental secondary characters are generally bit part roles which occupy minimal screen time. They may either be in interstitial scenes. Such roles include cab drivers, waiters and check-in staff. Sometimes they are used as comic relief.

Incidental characters may by speaking or non-speaking roles. The non-speaking roles are sometimes referred to as background or atmosphere actors. These includes shoppers in a supermarket queue or passengers on a bus.

Although secondary characters aren’t as fully fleshed out as the main characters, in terms of character arcs and goals, they must still be three-dimensional.

Bit-part actors may often fall into a stereotype to facilitate a rapid assimilation with the audience. Stereotypes such as the street hooker, the hairdresser who solves relationship problems or the over-critical mother in law, rely on subjective, widely-held preconceptions about character type. Stereotype characters are often seen in television commercials so their dramatic purpose can be established quickly.

The secondary characters mainly assist the main character in achieving their goal. In the case of buddy films, they act as a sounding board for the main character’s innermost thoughts. Sometimes, the “best friend” is the only person on the planet to tolerate the main character’s serious flaws before they see the error of their ways. However, they must be ever-present to reassure both the audience and the main character alike, that the main character is human and capable of being loved.

Secondary characters also give the audience an insight to the main character’s backstory. Perhaps they met in law school, jail, a nudist colony, war-torn Sudan, or an African safari. They also have an annoying habit of disclosing important and private aspects of the main character, often at the most embarrassing and inappropriate times, thinking that everybody already knew. We all know someone like that.

Secondary characters sometimes cause a hiccup in the main character’s plan; either by design or by accident. This raises the stakes by creating conflict, but also frustrates the main characters, as they need to be reminded they have taken the wrong path.

If your main characters are primary colors in your painting, secondary characters are the shades to add texture, variety and interest to your script. You want the best actors to play these secondary roles, so write them well. Don’t treat them as second best.

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