Secondary Characters

I’m working on a script right now, and I have been intently focused on nailing the protagonist and antagonist arcs to perfection. They are best friends who end up as enemies when a difficult coming-of-age event sets them on different paths. Their arc has to be nuanced so that you feel deeply for both of them. They have to be fully human, so that you see this film and cry and give it tons of awards.

I’ve been intently focused on making all of that sing on the page. During our last reading, my partner and I noticed a little issue. We had some less-than-subtle scenes with the antagonist, Estelle, and her mom. We also noticed that her mom was literally just called Estelle’s Mom. Who doesn’t like to be wholly defined by their relationship to another character? How about I just call you Joe’s Daughter or Karen’s Brother from now on? Funny thing, it works about as well for fictional people as it would for you. See the Glenn Close/Jonathan Pryce movie The Wife for more on that.

We’d only thought of this woman as Estelle’s mom. We knew her basic function in those scenes. We knew what Estelle needed to play off of, and how her mom’s issues complicated and motivated some of her own choices. But Estelle’s mom was just a paper tiger.

We started talking about her: what drove her to become the person she was; why she was hard on Estelle; what she feared, loved, needed, and wanted. In other words, we did all the character work we’d taken the time to do for our main characters. As we talked, it emerged we both knew people who weren’t as extreme as Estelle’s mom, but who were driven by the same motivations and fears. Suddenly, we had a whole new insight into her and what made her tick. The scenes between her and her daughter took on new depth and felt less Movie-Of-The-Week. Even better, they felt like scenes a name actress might love to sink her teeth into, to raise the profile of our little script without taking too much time commitment.

This character finally had a name. Beatrice is a far more interesting and nuanced human than Estelle’s Mom ever was, and Estelle will shine all the brighter because of it. I highly recommend you do the work of developing and exploring all your characters, not just your main characters. It’s the details that make any piece of art great. Secondary and supporting characters are where your script can shine.

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Why not workshop your characters with us? We’re off to Orvieto, Italy, for this year’s Italy Screenwriting Retreat from Sunday, September 1 to Saturday September 14. There’s only one spot left. It only takes $50 to reserve yours, so apply now.

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