Minor Characters Don't Need Major Introductions
EXT. - DUSK - CHICAGO STREET
In a traveling shot, we see JOSEPH TAMBERLIN, a homeless man of 47, asleep between two garbage cans in a trash-littered and stinky alley. He has long, dirty blond hair streaked with grey and pulled back in a ponytail secured with a child's discarded scrunchy. His eyes are bluish-green and he has a large mole on the left side of his bulbous, sunburned nose. Joseph, who goes by "Joe"came from London 15 years ago when his marriage to Stephanie broke up and has yet to lose his accent or the embarrassing lisp he has had since childhood. In the breast pocket of his grungy camouflage jacket is a letter from his daughter Ashley that she wrote to him a decade ago and telling him about the death of her pet goldfish. Joe wants to get off the streets but has no education and no friends who care about his fate. If he still had his guitar, he could maybe make money singing on street corners but he broke it two weeks ago hitting an attacker over the head who was trying to steal his shopping cart.
What's wrong with this picture?
While savvy screenwriters will be quick to point out that it's detail-intensive and smacks more of a meandering novel than a tight and well focused script, there's a bigger problem that may not be as obvious but is especially prevalent among novices:
Joseph is a one-scene, ambient character who has nothing to do with the plot.
In my work as a professional script coverage consultant, at least two thirds of the screenplays I review contain minor players to whom the authors have thoughtfully ascribed first and last names, physical characteristics, specific ages and ethnicities, poignant backgrounds, latent talents, and aspirations to be something other than the fictitious roles in which Fate has cast them for the purposes of the immediate story.
On the one hand, the writers don't seem to realize that no one except the reader will ever be privy to Joseph's heartache or, for that matter, wonder if he'll ever get his act together, land himself a record contract, and jet on over to England to reconcile with his ex. As far as the audience is concerned, he's just HOMELESS MAN and one who, for the short duration of this scene, isn't even awake.
On the other hand, perhaps such writers are only being sensitive to the egos of aspiring actors who make the rounds of studio auditions, earnestly clutching their 8x10 headshots and resumes and hoping for The Big Break. To list HOMELESS MAN or THIRD TAP DANCER FROM THE LEFT among one's credits suggests a generic interchangeability that's not likely to grab anyone's attention. List yourself as JOSEPH TAMBLERIN or MAISIE ROOSEVELT, though, and--voila!--your star potential gets cranked up a notch. The character you played had a name, ergo you must have had a presence in order to land the part.
Actors love this kind of logic. The rest of us, however, see it as unnecessary clutter. Here's why.
Why is it easier to watch a movie without any commercials than to watch one with a plethora of them? The reason is that every time there's a station break, it takes a comparable amount of time to get back into the flow of the story. While commercial advertisers orchestrate the placement of their ads to match viewer demographics, you're still forced to give your attention to characters and situations that have no bearing on the film being interrupted. Even if you use these ads as a chance to run and get a snack or let the dog out, your concentration has been broken for just long enough to upset the momentum of dialogue and action.
This same derailment occurs every time you bring a new character into the fold. Imagine, for instance, you're at a party and engaged in a conversation with someone you've wanted to get to know. Unfortunately, your host keeps dragging a succession of new guests over to your corner to make your acquaintance. While decorum dictates you acknowledge their presence and engage in chit-chat, you know that the likelihood of ever seeing them again is pretty remote and, further, that they've taken valuable time away from the person whose company you're trying to enjoy. The more intrusions, the more often you find yourself saying, "Now where did we leave off?"
In real life, that can be irritating. In screenwriting, the inability to keep your reader focused can spell rejection instead of a sale.
In a screenplay, the rhythm you're attempting to establish--along with the emotional investment you're asking a reader to make--is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:
1. Advances the plot,
2. Thwarts the hero's objectives,
3. Provides crucial background, and/or
4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.
If you've included characters who don't fulfill one or more of these jobs, they're probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there are several minor characters who appear only once or minimally and yet serve to either supplement our knowledge of the three main players or to enhance our awareness of the times in which they lived:
* The card player in the opening scene establishes Sundance's skill with a gun.
* The Hole-in-the-Wall gang establishes the workings of Butch's home turf.
* The Large Woman establishes a foil to trick Woodcock into opening the door.
* The bike salesman establishes how progress will change the face of the West.
* Sheriff Bledsoe establishes foreshadowing that the days of outlaws are numbered.
* The attentive young Bolivian boy establishes that the two newcomers are, in fact, the notorious American bandits.
With the exception of Sheriff Bledsoe, four of the characters listed don't have names. (The Hole-in-the-Wall members do have names and are individually addressed as such by Butch in the movie.) From their respective looks, actions and/or lines of dialogue, this is what we know about them:
* The card player is better skilled with cards than guns.
* The Large Woman is an outspoken grandmother who has fought whiskey and gambling and is totally fearless. Her clothes suggest affluence.
* The bike salesman is a shrewd opportunist.
* The stable boy is poor, eager to work, observant and honest.
We don't really need to learn anything more about these people because details such as where they were born, what their families are like or whether they harbor secret ambitions aren't relevant contributions to a plot that revolves around Butch, Sundance and Etta. While many new writers feel they have to validate each character's inclusion by giving him/her a name and a substantive history, the reality is that all of these particulars not only add to the length of the script but trick an audience into thinking they're going to need this information later to understand what's going on.
Let's make an analogy to studying for an exam: Would you force yourself to memorize an entire book when the only portion of it that you knew you were going to be tested on was Chapter 3? The same principle applies to audiences: Don't make them memorize anything more than is absolutely necessary to follow the plot.
SPECIFICS AD NAUSEUM
Could the HOMELESS MAN in the opening paragraph of this article have been played by a brown-eyed redhead in his early twenties? Could he have been Latino or African American? And what if we made his bulbous nose an aquiline one and moved that mole from the left side of it over to the right?
Even if the hapless Joe were promoted to the protagonist of this script, too much specificity is off-putting rather than endearing to a prospective producer. "Directing on paper"--a cardinal sin in writing for the screen--often manifests in exhaustive descriptions of even the most fleeting of characters. Helpful as most writers find it to envision actual personas in every single role they pen, it's best to be wary of overdoing it in the following areas:
Keep references to age as generic as possible. Labeling someone as a "19 year old coed" or "a 37 year old drunk" could preclude those actors and actresses who fall on either side of those numbers from being called to audition. Use, instead, the terms "toddler," "teen," "young adult," "middle aged," etc. or refer to characters by the decade in which they would most likely fall for the sake of the plot; i.e., "twenties," "forties," "eighties," etc.
Unless there's a familial relationship, an identity/fashion statement being made, or a direct reference to what is atop someone's head (i.e., "From the red of it, I'm betting you're Irish"), hair color and style are irrelevant to the role. Whether a bank teller parts his hair on the left, the right, or is bald has no bearing on his ability to handle money in a two-line role.
Why do we care if a bartender in the background or a girl on the bus has brown eyes or green? If no one's going to comment on it, neither should the writer.
Even for major characters, minimize the use of specifics (i.e., colors, patterns, textures) and name brands in outfitting them. I have actually read client scripts where everything was itemized right down to underwear.
I'm always amused by references to minor characters who are described as "fussy Brits, cool Germans, and flirtatious Frenchmen" and yet don't say a peep for the entire scene. If you're not going to let them to open their mouths, assigning a dialect to them doesn't make any sense.
Last but not least is the faux pas of identifying characters by gender or occupation (for example, CARHOP) and subsequently attaching actual names to them on the heels of brief dialogue with other players. The result of this is a skewed cast count, especially if that character's lines are initially attributed to CARHOP and then to MARGIE.
While there's certainly nothing wrong with an occasional tag ("Hey, Pete!"), your script will be stronger if you resist the urge to give everyone in it an ID and 15 minutes of fame. If a minor character needs more than that, take heart: he or she can always assume center stage in your next script!
Meet the Author: Christina Hamlett
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning writer, instructor and script consultant whose credits to date include 26 books, 133 plays, 5 optioned feature films, and hundreds of articles that appear in trade publications throughout the world. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan.