Within the scope of my experience writing scripts for films and sitcoms, I’ve noticed a significant trend amongst my more novice peers – the desire to drive a story forward through dialogue and action given only from primary characters. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Isn’t it true that movies are driven by principle characters? While this is mostly true, in order for a script to be truly interesting and non-predictable, the story line must be assisted by non-principle roles. Moreover, secondary characters must play a more substantial role than most screenwriters believe.
Secondary characters allow a story line to be influenced in a more indirect, and sometimes, more unpredictable manner. These characters, while not intimately involved with the story as a whole, can directly navigate the primary characters and their journey.
Allow The Unknowns to Make Their Mark
In the film, “Rules of Attraction,” it’s revealed that all major plot points and character engagements were driven by the act of an unknown character. This secondary character, captured as only a background performer until the very end of the film, directly moved the story along by killing herself, which had a strange effect on the other characters.
This film is a wonderful example of how secondary characters, even characters the audience isn’t fully aware of, can be the primary catalyst for the entire story. But how do you utilize this story method?
Appearance, Influence and Reveal
Although this screenwriting method is approachable in many different ways, I’ve found that the following formula tends to yield the most interesting and succinct story lines.
(1) Appearance in the Script – As you marinate on implementing this screenplay technique, consider how this secondary character will appear in the story. Using the example from above, screenwriter and director Roger Avary chose to incorporate this character in a very subdued and covert manner. This choice only highlighted and magnified the complex, yet mysterious, nature of how the film was told. Revealing the true importance of this character at the end of the movie tied in elements that were otherwise unclear or seemingly surface-level. While you don’t have you utilize this particular method, consider using the appearance of a secondary character as a means of adding depth and surprise to the script.
(2) Overt or Covert Influence – How do you think this secondary character should influence the story? Moreover, to what degree does the character influence the progression of events? Another vital element in this screenwriting method is configuring the influence this character has so you may begin integrating this element into your story. It’s important to note, even the smallest degree of influence can have very interesting results in terms of eliminating predictability and enhancing the depth and layers of your story.
(3) Reveal – This last element may not be applicable to all screenplays; however, I’ve always found stories that don’t fully reveal the true importance of a secondary character until later in the script are far more interesting as it provides an additional “twist” to the plot.