“We all need someone we can lean on.” – Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones
When we think about most stories, the first character we’ll remember is the Protagonist, naturally. After all, they’re the focus. But who comes next? Usually the second character we’ll identify or remember is the Influencing Character. This is not an accident or coincidence – the Influencing Character is usually the second most important character in any story or storyline!
People best understand a situation or idea by seeing how people interact with each other. This bit of psychology filters into storytelling and therefore makes it important we give our Protagonists someone to do just that. Without this other character, our Protagonists would mostly be silent, because why talk if no one is there? This would make them less relatable and interesting, because we wouldn’t get to know as much about them. When a Protagonist interacts with other characters we get pieces of information that we otherwise wouldn’t.
Influencing Characters’ roles usually fall into certain types - friend, mentor, love interest, family member, acquaintance, or worthy cause (meaning another being, not an organization). These people can be someone the Protagonist already knows or someone they meet in the course of the story.
What ever the relation to the Protagonist, the Influencing Character can fulfill any number of purposes as a component of screenwriting. Some of the most important purposes are:
In general, Influencing Characters will fulfill all the purposes listed above, but not always.
(Sidebar: We’re not trying to be cagey here – we’re talking about general guidelines for writing, not rules. What works for each individual story can vary, and there are unlimited possibilities for the ways story components can work. Hence all the “usually”s and “generally”s in our tutorials.)
These purposes are achieved by putting the Protagonist and Influencing Character together for as much of the story as possible, but most importantly for Act 2 – which is the story’s Adventure. The Adventure is the longest of the three acts of story structure, so this larger amount of screen time gives the Protagonist and Influencing Character enough time to interact sufficiently to achieve these purposes.
The following are further explanations of these purposes and how they work.
It can be argued that the most important purpose of the Influencing Character is to help the Protagonist change. As the name suggests, this character influences the Protagonist in some way – and in general this is by having an effect on the Protagonist’s Character Flaw. If you don’t yet understand Character Flaw, please reference that tutorial.
In most stories this influence is a positive one (the Protagonist changes for the better), but sometimes it’s a negative influence.
The Influencing Character can be thought of as a mirror for the Protagonist, someone who “shows” the Protagonist their flaw and helps them overcome it. The Influencing Character can do this consciously or not – meaning they can either directly address the Protagonist’s Flaw by calling it out in some way, or can affect the Protagonist merely by their being present and showing a different way of behaving.
For example, in It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence directly and overtly discusses George’s Flaw with him (suicidal). In Bad Santa, The Kid never addresses Willie’s issues directly, but merely by being innocent and needing his help, causes Willie to change.
To help facilitate the difference of philosophy (also described as dramatic conflict) between these two primary characters, it’s most common to give the Influencing Character the opposite trait of the Protagonist’s Flaw. This is the most simple and often effective way to choose the defining trait for Influencing Characters.
For instance, if our Protagonist is condescending, the Influencing Character might be complimentary to others. If the Protagonist is unconcerned in the welfare of others, the Influencing might be compassionate. If the Protagonist is stingy, the Influencing Character might be generous. And so on.
In Raising Arizona, Edwina is a responsible, family-craving woman who helps H.I. outgrow his irresponsible lone-wolf behaviors.
In The Wedding Singer, Robbie is heartbroken and bitter about relationships, but the positive, optimistic Julia helps him feel love again.
In The Karate Kid, the competent and stoic Mr. Miyagi helps change Daniel’s traits of unconfident and worried by teaching him karate and giving him life advice.
In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the supportive love interest Ian helps Toula gain confidence in making her own decisions, even if they go against her family’s wishes.
In Léon: The Professional, the private, self-protective assassin Léon learns to care for someone else’s wellbeing because the vulnerable young girl Mathilda needs his help.
Here are a few more Influencing Characters from popular feature Films. Think about how they help to elicit change in the Protagonist of each story:
Reese in The Terminator
Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story
Andy in The Shawshank Redemption
Eli (the girl vampire) in Let the Right One In
Morpheus in The Matrix
Maude in Harold and Maude
In the vast majority of stories, the Influencing Character will help the Protagonist in some way as they pursue their Goal. In other words, most commonly the Influencing Character is on the same “side” as the Protagonist. Whether it’s to find buried treasure, take down a dangerous criminal, win a competition, or win over a love interest, the Influencing Character will do what they can to help it happen.
Doc Brown in Back to the Future, Sgt. Powell in Die Hard, Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) in The Heat,,Cassian Andor in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Alfred in The Dark Knight, Ed in Shaun of the Dead, Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Azamat in Borat, Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in Se7en,are just a few examples of Influencing Characters that help the Protagonist with their Goal.
Watching the evolution of a relationship is generally fascinating to people – we like to see how things turn out between two people given who they are and the circumstances they’re in. So it makes sense that it would also be fun to see this evolution in screenplays as well. Relationships have conflict (at least, most do), and conflict is a necessary part of effective story telling.
The relationship between Protagonist and Influencing Character usually changes over the course of a story. This helps engage the audience, creates a variety of opportunities to show character traits, and also helps structure plot points. In other words, their relationship can greatly affect the story’s structure. Therefore it’s important to make sure this relationship grows in a logical or satisfactory way over the course of the adventure. If relationship events happen too fast or too slowly between the two primary characters, it can confuse the audience and throw them out of the narrative
For example, if your Protagonist and Influencing Character are in a romantic relationship, how quickly does it happen? Is it more appropriate for them to kiss in Section 12 at the end of the story or to become lovers or to get married? If your characters are becoming friends, where in the story do they have conflict? Where do they take a positive step forward with each other? Where do they let each other down, and what is the status of their relationship at the end? These are all great questions to ask of this special interaction of our two primary characters.
Here are just a few examples of relationships in screenplays that have a clear evolution or arc: Rose and Jack in Titanic, Joe Buck and Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Ron and Veronica in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Alvy and Annie in Annie Hall. Of course there are thousands more.
Did your mind just melt a little?
Yes, this is possible and occurs more often than you might guess in screenplays – when the Influencing Character and the Opponent are the same person. How does this work? That one character brings about change in the Protagonist while also standing in the way of their Goal.
Examples of characters that are both Influencing Character and Opponent (or at least one of the Opponents): Amadeus in Amadeus, Del Griffith in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, J.D. (Christian Slater) in Heathers, Raymond in Rain Man
In each of these examples you’ll note that the Influencing/Opponent Character has distinct moments where they are either impacting the Protagonist in a way that helps them switch up their behavior, OR they provide a moment of difficulty the Protagonist has to overcome. But throughout the entire story they provide both kinds of moments, which makes them both the Influencing Character and Opponent in the story.
The difficulty in writing this choice is that the writer needs to be specific scene to scene and even moment to moment precisely when that character is acting as Influencing (moments that affect Flaw) and when they are acting as Opponent (moments that present obstacles). This can be tricky but can be accomplished with care.
In general it’s easier to make the Influencing Character and Opponent different, separate characters. This generally provides a greater source for entertainment through more interactions between distinct characters. This is the recommended course of action for the majority of screenplay ideas.