Top Ten Tips for Writing Memorable Minor Characters
by Susan Kouguell
Film industry folks are always looking for compelling and attention-grabbing protagonists and antagonists in a well-crafted screenplay. That, fellow screenwriters, is not really ground-breaking news, but there is a consistent grievance that echoes the halls of studios and production companies throughout the land. Actually, it’s a consistent complaint. It’s all about those ignored minor characters also known as supporting characters.
The complaints go something like this: “These characters are dull, interchangeable, one-dimensional, predictable, stereotypical…”
What happens next? The screenplay is rejected. The writer is not considered for writing assignments. It’s a sad day in screenplay land.
Supporting characters can and should be memorable. For example: In All About Eve, (written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) minor character Birdie Coonan helps to propel the narrative forward by expressing her doubts about antagonist Eve Harrington’s intentions to protagonist Margo Channing. Birdie Coonan is memorable because she is also distinct; she’s direct and doesn’t mince words.
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I analyze Betty, a memorable minor character and her arc in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, screenplay by Adrien Joyce.
In this film, protagonist Bobby Dupea abandoned his promising career as a concert pianist and now works as an oil rigger in the California oil fields. After hearing from his sister that his father is dying, Bobby returns to his wealthy, cultured family’s Washington home where he attempts to reconcile with his father, falls for his brother’s sophisticated wife, and later abandons his brash but well-meaning live-in girlfriend, Rayette.
Betty, a minor character, who appears in only three scenes, advances the narrative by providing subtle insights about Bobby. (This is also an example of the rule of threes. This rule can be applied to a specific action that occurs at three different times during the film or to a character, who appears three times in the film. In the rule of threes, the third time the action or dialogue is seen or heard again, there is a variation from the first two times.)