The weight and influence primary characters have on a script is paramount. The reason for this shouldn’t be a mystery – they feature the most screen time and the story may actually revolve around them. No matter the level of importance primary characters have on a script, the biggest mistake a screenwriter can make is forgetting or diluting the importance of secondary characters. Mind you, I’m not referring to simply one-scene-only characters. Rather, secondary characters are defined as those with a significant amount of influence on the story (even if it’s only to navigate primary characters to the next scene/objective).
While the amount of time spent developing secondary characters is not as immense as with primary characters, the value of establishing these people is paramount.
Value of Secondary Characters
An excellent example of the importance or value secondary characters have on a script is in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where the entire plot of the film is based upon the interaction of Jim Carey (primary character) and his two friends. Basically, Jim Carey met Kate Winslet because of his friends (secondary characters) forced him to go to a beach cookout. It’s because of their influence, he met Clementine (Winslet). Therefore, it wasn’t for the influence and value of these two minor characters, there would be no story.
In fact, most films involve secondary/minor characters to propel the story forward. Now imagine these screenwriters didn’t place the appropriate weight and focus on these characters? Perhaps these films would be completely different, or maybe they would of never been optioned and developed.
Whether you’ve written a screenplay or still outlining the story, ask yourself the following five questions:
(1) Beyond primary characters, who has substantial influence on story progression?
(2) In what fashion are these secondary characters displayed?
(3) Are the secondary characters developed enough to stand on their own? Or are they primarily surface-level and relatively unknown to yourself (the screenwriter)?
(4) What is the interaction between the primary character(s) and the secondary character(s) off-screen? What is their relationship?
(5) Should any secondary characters be transformed into primary characters?
Question number five is one of the most important screenwriting tips you could ever ask yourself. The most recent screenplay I’ve worked on began as countless others have. I had a solid outline and my primary characters were well-developed; however, 70 pages into the script I realized two of my secondary characters required a much larger role.
In turn, this caused a primary character to transform into a secondary and another primary character was deleted entirely. Now, the script is even more dynamic and interesting. However, that would of never happened if I didn’t take the time to analyize the role and value of secondary characters.