Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Writing The Thriller # 3: Secondary Characters

In the previous article we looked at the protagonist and antagonist in the Thriller: in direct contrast to many other genres, it's often the antagonist who drives the action in the Thriller, instead pulling the protagonist into their orbit, rather than vice versa. Similarly, notions of "good versus evil" often come into play in their characterisation, though it would be unwise to draw this in too broad strokes.  The various shades of grey often play a part in protagonist and antagonist characterisation in the best produced Thrillers: antagonists aren't "just good people", any more than antagonists are "comic book villains".

However, secondary characters are similarly important, as with all genre films. Even in Thrillers with small casts like Deviation - a film which concentrates mainly on Frankie and Amber, on their own, in the car - other characters must come into play.  Each secondary character must offer something to the narrative and "pull their weight"; they are not there for the sake of it, however interesting they might be. Yet how can we, as writers, choose the "right" secondary character?

Basically, we must look to the notion of ROLE FUNCTION in picking the "right" secondary character. Every character in Deviation - and indeed all good thrillers and genre movies - must make that all-important CONTRIBUTION to the narrative in terms of pushing it forward. It is no good *just* to have a "wise cracking friend" or "mentor figure" who does not perform a specific FUNCTION in keeping the story going. In other words, good characterisation is not just about about how "cool" or "memorable" that character is, but what the character DOES in the story.

Remember too Frankie drives the action in this Thriller (though it is important to remember this does not automatically mean Amber is a PASSIVE protagonist who just "accepts" whatever comes to her... She does not. Amber must come to a number of decisions in the course of the narrative pertaining to her own survival). WHO drives the narrative makes a direct impact on your secondary characters' role functions.

In addition to the above characters, there are also other peripheral characters such as "The Hoodies", "The Van Driver" and "The Mini-Cab Driver". These parts, somewhat smaller than those above, are usually present to demonstrate a specific element of another character (such as Frankie's ruthlessness) or a single moment in the narrative that drives home the overall theme of the story.

Concluding: when writers are told secondary characters must "pull their weight", they're essentially being told secondary must contribute that all-important ROLE FUNCTION. What this means:

*What* can this character GIVE or TAKE AWAY from the character driving the action - be it protagonist or antagonist? And what does this MEAN to the overall story? 

NEXT: Structure, part one: Dramatic Context, "Flight then Fight"

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