There has been a lot written about the idea of actor bait – writing your protagonist and antagonist in such a strong, unique, and powerful way, that any actor would be chomping at the bit to play the part. Get an actor interested in the role, and it becomes that much easier to sell your script or get the green light from a studio. It’s solid advice, and will go a long way towards getting the attention of an agent or development exec, but if you aren’t careful, crafting those highly nuanced and powerful main characters can also highlight something lacking in the majority of scripts out there: The supporting players.
Too often, a script’s supporting characters can pale in comparison to what’s going on around them; seeming like cardboard cutouts when they’re put up next to the fully fleshed out characters at the core of the story. So how do you make your supporting characters shine? Sure, it helps to have an amazing actor, but film is a collaborative medium, and it’s your responsibility to give them the material they need.
To get a better idea of what it takes to elevate your own supporting cast, let’s take a look at some of the shining examples that have come before…
Supporting Characters and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’
Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross:
The epitome of what can be done with a supporting role, Baldwin’s character has exactly one scene, but when the film finishes, his scene is the first thing you think of. His role as a “motivator” for a group of under-performing real estate salesmen is blistering, and hangs over the rest of the movie like a storm cloud that could start pouring down rain at any given moment.
Cuba Gooding Jr. Jerry Maguire:
Jerry Maguire is one of those movies that is defined by its supporting cast. The first lines you think of when you think about the film are “You had me at hello,” and Gooding Jr’s amazing rift on the phone with Jerry that culminates with “Show me the money.”
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight:
After months of internet complaining about Ledger’s casting as The Joker, audiences sat in stunned silence as they finally saw him become the character. From the end of that opening bank heist, you know that Ledger is going to own this movie. It’s a captivating scene that would work just as well if you removed its comic book roots and watched it as in a thriller.
What these scenes all have in common, other than amazing actors, is that the supporting characters were given then same attention as their counterparts with more screen time. Their dialogue is whip-smart, and they have shades of people we all know (yes, even The Joker) which makes the audience able to identify with them. But perhaps most importantly, they utilize all of this to drive the plot forward; they're intricate to the story and the themes being explored.
What is Glengarry without “…third place is, you’re fired”?
How does Jerry change if he doesn’t have Rod to hold up as a mirror to himself?
How do we truly understand Batman’s drive to create order if we never glimpse the soul of chaos?
Ask yourself, do your supporting characters live up to these examples and to the main characters in your own script? If they feel like lesser characters, for any reason other than the number of scenes they have, then you might need to look into giving them a boost.
Until next time, remember that coffee is for closers, and keep writing!
- More Specs & The City articles by Brad Johnson
- Development: Missing – Compelling Characters
- A Writer’s Voice: What the Heck are Character Archetypes?
- Specs & The City: Female Characters and… Pretty Much Every Movie Ever