When I watch a film, the minor characters are never something I really focus on or even particularly notice.
Enter Shane Black.
Let me start this off by saying I love Shane Black (writer of Lethal Weapon, and writer/director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang & Iron Man Three). I love his post-noir, tongue-firmly-in-cheek style of filmmaking. I fervently believe his most recent work, The Nice Guys, is the most underrated film that was released this year (other than MAYBE Hunt for the Wilderpeople which has literally zero Oscar buzz, and I don’t understand why).
However you feel about his style, you cannot deny his minor characters are unforgettable. They never feel like a means to an end, from a storytelling perspective; they always feel like a vibrant part his stories, rather than something that bogs them down.
I’ve taken a couple of principles I’ve learned from studying his minor characters that you can use when creating characters yourself.
1. A Limp and an Eye Patch
This is a screenwriting principle taken directly from Blake Snyder’s infamous screenwriting epic, Save the Cat. All it means is to give your minor character something physically distinctive.
It’s hard to keep track of all the characters in a film. Giving them a physical distinction is a way to make someone memorable, especially if they don’t have a lot of screen time.
One of Shane Black’s surprisingly memorable minor characters comes in Iron Man Three.
There’s a scene where our hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is held up by a minor side villain; a random woman posing as someone in law enforcement (played by Stephanie Szostak). She’s one of the ex-military infused with EXTREMIS, giving them the ability to recover quickly from injuries. She’s in the film for maybe 15 minutes, but she was compelling and memorable.
What made her so unique and interesting? Her character is an otherwise beautiful woman, with a rather unique face scar. This contrast is intriguing and creates a sense of mystery around her character.
This character could’ve been anybody, and could’ve looked like anything. She exists to push the story forward, and provide some conflict for Tony. She didn’t have to be memorable, but the fact that she was made the film a richer place.
He succeeded in doing this again in The Nice Guys with several characters, but specifically with the character of Blueface (Beau Knapp, pictured pre-blueface). Early in the film he gets a can of blue substance sprayed on his face, and every time we see him throughout the remainder of the film, his face is partly obscured with blue.
When you’re creating minor characters, why not take the time and make them distinctive physically? This will not only help your audience differentiate them from your other characters, but possibly add intrigue and depth to an otherwise flat character.
2. Defy Expectations
Not only does Shane Black often give them a physical distinction, but he defies expectations with them. Another way of saying this is, he creates inherent contrast within the character.
Let’s take a look at Matt Bomer’s assassin character in The Nice Guys. In usual Shane Black fashion, the character has a physical distinction that makes him interesting; a large beauty mark on his face. What defies expectations is that he calls himself John Boy, like the character on the 70’s TV show, The Waltons, who also has a large beauty mark on his face.
The Waltons is a wholesome program about family values and a simpler time. It’s a show that is seeded throughout the whole film, making it that much more ironic when this malicious character is named after something so folksy and unassuming.
It’s this contrast of the innocent and malicious that makes his character really stand out in the piece.
What it truly comes down to here is irony. Subverting expectations is one form of irony called situational irony. If you want to create a memorable minor character (or ANY, really) in the style of Shane Black, there must be an element of the ironic.
An assassin with a name from something like The Waltons is ironic, because it’s not what you’d expect. The contrast of two opposing elements sometimes can create irony, like it does here.
When I watch a film, I love entering a world that feels lived in, rich, and cohesive. The more lived in it feels, the more I am able to emotionally engage in the story, and the more often I want to visit that world. Creating memorable minor characters is a part of that. It may not be crucial to the story, but it certainly helps create a rich cinematic experience that people are less likely to forget and more likely to revisit.