Poor Secondary Characters
Secondary characters and their relationship to your protagonist and antagonist can make or break your story. Very often screenwriters will get their protagonists and antagonists DOWN in their scripts … But when it comes to their secondary characters??? EPIC FAIL.
Why? Well, all too often it will simply be because those secondary characters are simply DULL. Secondary characters may be just hanging around randomly; or they may feel underdeveloped, there only to serve the plot. Basically: LE YAWN.
This is never more obvious than with female secondary characters in spec screenplays in my experience, so I thought I’d take a look at four of my favourite female secondary characters and why they’re so great:
1) Gloria, WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP (1992)
I remember watching this movie when I was a kid. Though I’ve got as much interest in basketball or sports in general as I have in being stuck in the eye with a red hot needle, I was really struck by Gloria.
Gloria is a great secondary not only because she feels three dimensional , but because she’s always so optimistic. Notice she doesn’t say “IF Jeopardy calls …” in the movie, she says WHEN!! And guess what, Jeopardy does call, because Billy fixes it for her, because he KNOWS she will win (plus she’ll hopefully get back with him). HOWZAT for self fulfilling prophecy??
So as a secondary character, Gloria’s life is the triumph of hope over experience, encapsulated by this little speech:
Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.
Yeah! You said it, Gloria. I totally agree. And if you don’t know what she means?? Then school yourself sunshine, STAT. MORE: Don’t Let Your Secondary Characters Take Over
2) Greta, LIAR, LIAR (1997)
Long-suffering secondary character Greta is a legal secretary for Fletcher Reede, a lawyer who finds himself unable to lie for twenty four hours in this comedy. It’s unusual to see a secondary character of Greta’s age in movies at all, but I think what I like best about Greta is not only her no-nonsense approach to Fletcher’s lies, but how she deals with his truth as well:
Many secondary characters in comedy act only as a foil or facilitator for the lead’s actions. But here in LIAR, LIAR Greta has her own views and her own motivations, making her place in the story unforgettable. This proves once and for all Joss Whedon’s notion that everyone in the story “must have a reason to live” if we are going to get behind characterisation.
3) Karen, BLADE (1998)
What I love about secondary character Karen is she’s a SCIENTIST and uses her skills not only to try and find a cure for herself, but to help Blade fight their mutual nemesis – vampires. Who can forget that impressive *stuff* she creates that makes vampires explode?? Quite simply, Blade could not have fought the vamps off without this WHOA-man!!
A haemotologist, Karen is dragged into Blade’s world against her will (and our hero’s, as is customary with the Thriller genre), but she’s not going to cry about it. Neither does she slink about her lab being sexy-schmexy, she just gets on with things. In fact, she is so practical, when she sees Blade is fading in the resolution, she even offers herself up as a little snack to pep him up! How’s that for hardcore??? MORE: 33 Experts Share Their Notable Female Characters Of Recent Years
4) Letty, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001)
Secondary character Letty’s is dual lead Dominic’s longtime girlfriend in this franchise, but she’s ALSO rock solid proof the “love interest” role function doesn’t have to be dull, sappy or even vulnerable.
Letty is indubitably a Class A bitch, but unlike many of these type of female characters, we totally *get* her. She might be jealous and possessive; she might be careless and flippant; she might positively REEK of bad attitude … But she’s also an amazing driver and mechanic; she’s loyal to a fault AND she knows when to pick her battles with her own mercurial mate, Dominic Toretto. Here’s what she says when Dominic nearly gets caught by the police and he’s angry “buster” Brian has had to rescue him:
LETTY: (concerned) Are you alright?
DOMINIC: (incredulous) Am I alright????
LETTY: (deadpan) It’s a question.
But I think my favourite element of Letty is her totally unapologetic stance on owning her sexuality. Too often female characters who do this get humiliated or threatened for it, but not Letty. She likes sex, she is sexy and she gives zero fucks who knows it, including Dominic:
LETTY: You look tired. I think you should go upstairs and give me a massage.
No wonder Dominic’s frequent line to Letty throughout the entire franchise is a variation of, “You got this?” We KNOW she’s got this!!! MORE: 5 Modern Kickass Hotties Who Are Also Great Characters