In an effort to make minor and bit-piece characters stand out it can be all too easy to fall back on stereotypes. While trying to make every character somewhat unique is commendable the use of stereotypes is not. There are a few problems with using stereotypes for minor characters and they are as follows.
#1: They’re not unique. You might think you’re fleshing out the world of your screenplay by having a grumpy old man or an Italian pizza boy but you’re doing the exact opposite. Everyone’s seen these stereotypes before so they completely fail in being unique.
#2: They can be offensive. Lets say you have a couple of Jewish characters in your script, they are not friends or relatives and appear in separate parts of your screenplay. Imagine they both have the same stereotypical male Jewish traits of being obsessed with saving money and being good businessmen. In this politically correct age you can bet that anyone who reads your script will notice that and probably discard your work as a result.
#3: They’re distracting. You can do all the work you like in building up the drama of your story but it’s no good if audiences get distracted by “the funny little Indian man running the 7/11”.
#4: They’re restrictive. Stereotypical characters are only of any use as comedy fodder, and even then it’s not good comedy.
The above reasons are why it’s so important to understand the different between the stereotype and the character type. A stereotype is a (usually) negative portrayal of a particular race, sex, class, etc. A character type could be a nervous first-time parent or an overly confident intern. The difference being that the character type doesn’t try to suggest that groups of people all have the same characteristics while the stereotype does.
Keeping It Real
While it’s a bad idea to include stereotypical characters in your screenplay it is fantastic if you can make the world of your screenplay a diverse one without them. Obviously you may not want your characters to be very different if you’re writing a story set in Lancashire in the early 1800s but otherwise diversity is a great thing.
There’s a tendency in TV and film for having a predominantly white world which is totally unrealistic. Actually towns and cities are usually culturally mixed and you can use your minor characters to reflect this if you find that your main characters are all white males. If that is the case then it might also be wise to turn one of these “white males” into something different so the main faces of your cast are more unique, and more memorable.
Diversifying the world in which your screenplay takes places can be very easy. Give your main character a friendly neighbour who happens to be Asian, have his social circle be full of different types of people. This is a great way of adding realism and color to your story world.
In parting I would like to note that writing a minor character is not much different to writing a major one. You might not have to come up with as much detail but it is important that you don’t make minor characters one dimensional. If you do you’ll have a bland cast of characters that also drag down your main characters in any interactions they have.