Reader Question: How do I make supporting characters and interesting?

One sign of a well-written script: Strongly detailed secondary characters.

Reader question via email from Joe:

Hi Scott! A question about supporting characters.

How do I make supporting characters that don’t necessarily have that much screen time but that I feel are essential to the story distinctive and interesting?

In the script I’m writing at the moment, I introduce a girlfriend and later fiancé to my main character at around page 25. As the story progresses, I use her in 7–8 scenes but she never gets any major screen time. I did this mostly because I felt that the story needed a strong female character to balance the otherwise male-dominated movie. I do have other female roles in the story but none of those characters are featured in more than one scene.

In the movie Rush, the character of Suzy Miller is featured in only 5 scenes or so, yet she is played by A-List actor Olivia Wilde who receives top billing. (I only used Rush as an example since it was this movie that made me think of the question).

What I think makes this character worthwhile is that she has a small arc (she decides she doesn’t want to be with James Hunt, a notorious playboy, but with a man that adores her) and she shows/brings forth something about one of the main characters (Hunt’s angry temper when he doesn’t get any sponsors).

But other than this, how do I create “small” supporting characters that are interesting, that contribute to the story and that actors want to play?

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Olivia Wilde, Chris Hemsworth in ‘Rush’.

First off, Joe, it’s great you’re even aware of this concern. I read a lot of scripts where the writer treats the more central characters pretty well, but handles minor characters with less care and attention. They’re generic. Flat. Uninspired. Forgettable. When I run across characters like that, I know the writer needs to up their game. Conversely when I read a script in which all of the characters — regardless of their line or page count — come across as distinctive, vibrant individuals, that’s one sign I’m dealing with a writer who knows his/her chops. And simply being conscious of the need to handle every character well is fundamental to this aspect of the craft.

The next thing: Be clear about each character’s function. Why do they exist in this story? What purpose do they play in the narrative? If you are clear on this and that function is, indeed, important to the plot, then you are on the road toward crafting a memorable character in part because their function is key to the telling of the story.

Your example — Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) in Rush — is a good one. You already cite some of the keys to her role, but it seems to me the most important point for her character’s existence is this: Her eventual divorce from Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) serves as a direct contrast to the relationship between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and his wife Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara). They have a successful marriage and her importance in Niki’s life is one of the reasons he quits racing, i.e., he doesn’t want to jeopardize losing her. Not so with Hunt and Miller. She comes to understand that she will always be second to Hunt’s obsession with racing. Her affair with Richard Burton can be seen as an act of provocation to spur their divorce.

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So yes, Miller’s role is a secondary one, but it is key in presenting a contrast between Hunt and Lauda in terms of what they deem to be most important in their lives.

Once you understand a character’s narrative function, no matter whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary in terms of page count or influence, I would encourage you to use the same character development tools. Questionnaires. Biographies. Interviews. Monologues. In other words, engage each character, no matter how ‘small’ they are in terms of the plot.

Obviously this is scalable. You don’t need to spend as much time delving into the life of BALDING COP or OBNOXIOUS CUSTOMER as you do PROTAGONIST or ATTRACTOR, but you should do enough so that each character emerges into your consciousness — their physical nature, voice, mannerisms.

And that in my view is the key takeaway from this discussion: Engage the character directly. If you treat each character with respect, curiosity, and interest, no matter how large or small their contribution to the story, they ought to come alive to you. After all, every character is the Protagonist in their own story. SNOT-NOSED KID may only have one line of dialogue in the entire script, but his/her experience in the story universe is that they are the Protagonist.

Once a character does come to life for you, focus on what makes them unique. How do they carry themselves? How do they present themselves to the world? What about the way they talk is distinctive? What of who they are strikes you as being worthy of inclusion in a movie?

So to sum up: Determine what the character’s narrative function is. Engage them directly in developing their character. Look for distinctive aspects of their personality which can make their role entertaining and memorable.

Readers, what do you think? How do you go about making your secondary characters unique and memorable? If you have some additional thoughts, please head to comments.

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