Pilar Alessandra is the author of The Coffee Break Screenwriter and the director of the Los Angeles-based writers’ studio “On the Page®.” Check out her writing classes and her popular screenwriting podcast at www.onthepage.tv
The “love interest.” The “mentor.” The “best friend.” We know them well as the supporting characters in a screenplay. These characters give an “attaboy” where needed or an enigmatic smile when called upon. But, are they really the kinds of characters we talk about on the drive home from the movie theater?
Think about it… the supporting characters you really love are the ones who make an indelible mark, imprinting on the audience and threatening to run the show. They provide skills and tools for the main character, plant motivation in their head and even up the personal stakes. Often, as the main character struggles, flounders and deadpans, it’s the supporting characters who are the more interesting people to read about or watch. After all, they’re committed to who they are and what they do. Here are just a few that come to mind:
1. Party Pal: When is a best friend better than a best friend? When he or she is the “Party Pal” who gets to act out the main character’s secret desires. She’s the girl who says what the main character wishes she could say, like Melissa McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids. Or he’s the one who convinces the main character that he can use cancer as a way to pick up women, such as Seth Rogen’s character in 50/50. Sometimes Party Pal forces the main character to get in trouble like Christian Bale’s character in The Fighter. Or she causes the main character to confront her secret desire such as Mila Kunis’ horny ballerina in Black Swan. Need a little more activity in your script? Use this character to create fun and drag your main character into adventure.
2. Doormat Dude: Sometimes Doormat Dude is the brains behind the operation – think Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball or Andrew Garfield’s character in The Social Network. Sometimes he’s the guy who plays it safe such as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. Always he’s there to help provide a plan and necessary exposition. But, he can also be the guy who the main character lets down or takes for granted. He’s the opposite of party pal, though. He’s the rational one who can’t wait for the main character to grow up.
3. Douche In A Suit: Pardon my language, but c’mon, you know who this guy is. You’ve seen him in movies for years and you love to hate him. He’s almost every character Kevin Spacey has ever played (Margin Call, Swimming with Sharks, Horrible Bosses) and he reminds you of some jerk you once worked with. Douche In A Suit can also be a woman. Think Kristen Wiig’s character in Knocked Up who insists the lead lose 20 pounds or Elizabeth Bank’s character in The Hunger Games. Need an obstacle to give your scenes a little conflict? Who’s your selfish, materialistic character that drives your main character crazy and also represents the establishment? Got him? OK. “Let the games begin!”
4. Mama Mentor: Move over Obi-Wan, Judi Dench as “M” in the James Bond film Skyfall has elevated the sage-like character of “Mama Mentor” into a character worthy of the screenwriting books. Mama Mentor doesn’t have a beard, but she is both wise and wonderful. And, like her male predecessor, she might have to fall on her sword or literally die to help the main character push forward in his or her story. Viola Davis’ character in The Help represents this (goodbye “Mammy” hello “Mentor”) as does Sally Field’s Aunt May character in The Amazing Spiderman.
5. Lady MacBeth: The days of the passive wife or girlfriend are over. Who’s the woman behind the throne; the one pushing the (inevitably) male main character to do something for God’s sake? It’s… Amy Adams! Sure, she may look harmless, but she’s Lady Macbeth in both The Master and The Fighter! Heck, she even pushes the main character in The Muppets. For more examples, think of Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading and Katey Sagal as Gemma in Sons of Anarchy. Currently, it’s still going to take years to catch up with the amount of male main characters on screen, but until then, we’ve got Lady Macbeth pushing those guys forward.
6. Teacher Dad: He’s a father figure. He’s a teacher. He’s a father figure and a teacher. Who is he? Well, he’s the sheriff Bruce Willis played in Moonrise Kingdom and he’s Geoffrey Rush as the voice teacher in The King’s Speech. He’s also Michael Caine’s Alfred in the recent incarnation of the Batman movies. Why is he so necessary? Well, our wounded main character has a big issue with his real father who: A. left him at an early age; B. died when he was young; C. ignored him completely. Teacher Dad, fortunately, fills the gap so the main character can move on and save the day.
7. Angry Grandpa: Angry Grandpa is comic relief. Angry Grandpa is a truth teller. Angry Grandpa is Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine and in Argo. Sometimes he’s the ranting guy who speaks the theme of the movie. Think about Tom Wilkinson’s character in Michael Clayton or Peter Finch in Network. Having trouble getting your message across in your script? Try allowing Angry Grandpa to scream it out the window.
8. Manic MILF: The Graduate introduced this character but American Pie made her a staple. Jane Seymour in Wedding Crashers and Jennifer Aniston as the sexual predator in Horrible Bosses both stole the show and provided unique obstacles for the main characters. On television, look at Eve Best’s high-heel wearing, doctor best friend in Nurse Jackie. Both sexy and practical, she humanizes Nurse Jackie’s dark story.
9. The Bookish Beauty: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And the Bookish Beauty is one love interest that never goes out of style. She’s so prevalent I dare you not to find a movie in which the female romantic interest isn’t some form of Bookish Beauty. But, why not? Who wants a dumb girlfriend? And the fact that she just happens to be pretty? Well, that ain’t so bad either.
10. The Camera: What? A camera as a supporting character? Well, yeah. In 2012, the camera is everywhere. So it makes sense that it’s the new “best friend” in movies like 127 Hours and Cloverfield. TV shows like The Office and Modern Family embrace The Camera and tell it secrets in a way that would make the most trusted BFF jealous. For that reason, The Camera might be a supporting character who works for your script. Don’t lean on it if you don’t need it, though. Like voice-over and breaking of the fourth wall, The Camera can be a weighty dramatic device.
Chances are you’ve already got one of these characters in your own script dying to get out. That character is, indeed, “supportive.” But see what happens when that same character stops playing it safe and starts stealing the scene. You’ll create an edgier, more interesting read. Party Pal and Lady Macbeth would approve.
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