Characters in Movies All Have a Role
Good movies have a lot of things in common—well-written scripts, quality cinematography, excellent set designs, and a creative director. These elements come together through the actors who portray various characters to complete an excellent film.
What are the various kinds of characters in movies that bring a story together? If you pay attention, you’ll notice that most films have the same types of characters to help tell the story.
Related: 17 Types of Roles in Movies
1. Main Characters—You Can’t Tell a Story Without Them
Obviously, the movie’s main characters are the most necessary to move a story forward. In most forms of storytelling, the primary character is called the Protagonist, or (in movie speak) the lead. The lead character is the one that is at the center of the story.
The lead character doesn’t need to be human, although, in most movies, it usually is. Every scene in a movie should have something to do with how the story is advanced for the lead character, even if they don’t appear in that scene.
In most movies, it is easy to spot the lead character. Sometimes the movie is named for or refers to the main character, like “Gandhi”, “Iron Man”, or “The Truman Show”. If the story centers around a character, chances are that will help to identify the lead character.
In the movie, “The Help”, there are actually two lead characters, Skeeter and Aibileen. By experiencing the story through both characters, the viewer is able to get even more insight into the events depicted.
If the movie had focused only on Skeeter, some valuable insight into the history and culture of the situation that only Aibileen provided would have been lost.
Over the course of the movie, we should be able to witness the change or transformation of the lead characters. And as much as the writing, scenery, and props might help move the story forward, it would be difficult to achieve without additional characters.
2. Antagonists—Opposites May Attract, Or Not
One of the easiest ways to show transformation in the main character is by having another character that acts in opposition to the main character. This character is often referred to as the antagonist. By having a character with personality traits or who acts in a way that is different from the lead, we can learn even more about that main character.
While the most common way for an antagonist to show up is as a villain, the truth is that the oppositional character can be different from the lead in obvious or subtle ways. A villain as an antagonist might not only act in an opposite way but also fundamentally be a very different person.
This means that their choices may be for reasons that the lead character cannot understand, which may lead the main character to question their choices, evolve their way of thinking, or become even more committed to their original beliefs. This is very difficult to do in story development without an antagonist.
In the movie, “The Help”, Hilly Holbrook is the antagonist, acting opposite to the two protagonists: Skeeter and Aibileen.
While the two leads have differing backgrounds and experiences, Hilly’s character represents a racist and unchanging viewpoint that helps Skeeter better understand her view of racial inequalities, and helps Aibileen become empowered to stand up to the injustices happening around her.
The movie demonstrates how the antagonist is essential to demonstrate change and propel the story forward, even in a story with two lead characters.
3. Supporting Characters—We Are Just Here to Help
Supporting characters, or deuterangonists in more formal speaking, are also essential to telling a well-rounded story. Supporting characters can act as a sounding board for the main characters to help show their transformations.
In movies where there is no device to understand the thoughts inside a main character’s head, a supporting actor can bring out those thoughts through conversations. They can also provide historical context and give the audience insight into the story from different perspectives.
While there can be several supporting characters that each contribute something specific, there is usually at least one supporting person who is part of the main story line.
In the case of “The Help”, each one of the main characters also has their own supporting person who is an integral part of their story line. For Skeeter, her mother, Charlotte, provides insight into Skeeter’s personality, history and character.
While she may not always agree with Skeeter, she does support her as she changes over the course of the movie. Aibileen’s supporting character is Minny, who is experiencing many of the same issues that Aibileen has. She has also known Aibileen for a long time and can be a witness to her personal history.
4. Mentors—Another Kind of Support
A subcategory of the supporting character is the mentor. In this case, the supporting actor doesn’t only provide additional context and help to the lead character, they also can act as a wiser, more seasoned character that enlightens and empowers the lead.
The greatest example of this is the character of Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid”. As a supporting character, he lends depth to the story line and gives us additional insight into Daniel’s character through their conversations and interactions.
More than this, Mr. Miyagi offers the wisdom of his additional experience to Daniels so that he has someone to guide him on his journey. However, a mentor does not always have to be a supporting character with a significant amount of screen time.
In “The Help”, the character of Elain Stein, the editor in New York City that is working with Skeeter on her book idea, offers more business-like mentorship. She is there to bring Skeeter into the publishing world and keep her work on the manuscript moving forward.
5. The Romantic Interest—For All the Feels
Sometimes a romantic interest character can also be a supporting character, in that they also act as a vehicle to learn more about the lead character and their journey.
But like a mentor, the romantic interest embodies a very specific purpose in their storyline. Romance can be a transformational emotion, so injecting a character who adds romance is an effective way to portray change. This is especially helpful if the power of love is one of the themes in the movie.
In some formulaic romance stories, the romantic interest may start out in the story as an antagonist, only to have both the lead and their character transform into romantic partners.
In “The Help”, Skeeter has a brief romantic interest named Stuart who is not central to the main story, but who does provide a way to demonstrate Skeeter’s desire to become her own woman and forgo the typical female role that has been pressed on her. Stuart may not be a pivotal character in the main story line, but his role as her romantic interest adds depth to the story line.
6. The Sidekick—A Buddy
Another supporting character type is the sidekick. This character is usually a close friend or confidant to the lead character. They may have even more insight into the lead since their role is to be extremely close to them and know many of their inner thoughts and desires. Because of their ability to listen and be a sounding board for the lead, they may also be known as a confidant.
Although Skeeter in “The Help” does not have a sidekick, Aibileen does have Minny as a close friend and confidant. Because they have been friends for a long time, their relationship gives insight into Aibileen’s history before the beginning of the story depicted in the movie.
7. Orbital Characters—Small But Pivotal Roles
Orbital characters may have roles of differing importance in a movie. They usually contribute a vital piece of information or a pivotal moment that help the lead character and the story evolve. If they have a larger role, like Minny in “The Help”, being an orbital character could be a form of a supportive character.
For smaller roles, being an orbital character could be something simple, like the character of Mae Mobley, the young toddler that Aibileen cares for. Mae is the character that gives us a fresh way to interpret parenting in the era of the film, plus she is the recipient of Aibileen’s advice, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” Although her screen time is short, her impact on developing the deep layers of this story are very important.
In fact, when Skeeter talks about the role of “the help” in her upbringing, it provides great insight into the relationship that Mae and Aibileen have.
8. Background Characters—Delivering a Lot in Just One Line
If a movie includes a character that has made a minor contribution to the story line without any attempt to provide a back story, that is probably a background character.
The name is pretty self-explanatory, since these characters are usually in the background, but will occasionally step forward to deliver a line or two that helps move the action forward.
Examples of this would be individuals that the lead character encounters who deliver instructions or philosophical thoughts even though we don’t know much about them.
In “The Help”, Henry, who waits tables at the local diner, is a background character who is a part of several key moments. He gives Skeeter information about where to meet the maids that want to help her, and talks to Aibileen on the night she has to get off the bus.
We don’t get much insight into his background and history, but we do get to understand some of the historical context in the movie through his additional perspective.
9. Extras—Characters or Scenery?
Depending on the scene, extras may be necessary to lend credibility to the situation. Any scenes that need large crowds or background people, like a restaurant or office setting, need extras to make the scene look realistic.
This may be an underappreciated role, since many people might think it just involves sitting in the background, but a bad extra can ruin a scene by pulling focus from the other characters and possibly undermining the story. There are plenty of websites and videos devoted to extras who have gotten a little too much attention.
Being an extra is far from easy. It requires the ability to wait around for long periods while shots are set up and stars are preparing to be on camera. They also have to endure whatever weather conditions are necessary for the shot, so if it’s raining, they could be wet for a very long time. The bonus to enduring tough conditions is that it could pay more!
Extras may be part of the background, but they may also require time in hair, makeup, and wardrobe. For period pieces, that means that they could be wearing uncomfortable clothing for a long time. If the wardrobe for the movie isn’t very specific, extras may even be required to bring their own clothing to the shoot.
Often, they are asked to bring muted, neutral-colored clothing so they don’t draw too much attention to themselves. And while we’re addressing wardrobe, extras may also have to wear clothing that doesn’t match the season.
If they have to film summer scenes during winter months, or winter scenes in hot weather, they may have to spend a lot of their work day dressed very uncomfortably.
If you pay attention to extras in the background of a busy scene, like a restaurant, you may wonder how they capture the hustle of that environment. The truth is that extras have to do most of their work for interior scenes in silence so that the conversations happening between more central characters can be heard. .
The sounds of restaurant clatter are added afterward, so if you see the mouths of extras moving—they’re not actually saying anything! What is even more ridiculous is that a dance scene may also require them to dance in silence, with a musical soundtrack added in post-production.
With long hours, low pay, and (many times) no breaks to eat, it’s hard to imagine why any one would want to be an extra on a movie set. True, they do end up in close proximity to movie stars, but that is not always the way to a big break in the industry.
Because an extra is usually a face in the crowd, getting noticed is almost impossible. Many extras report that the stars in a movie barely pay any attention to them at all, and even the production staff can be indifferent. If they have a scene with a principal character, they have to be sure to consistently do multiple takes and let the stars shine.
Why would anyone want to be an extra? Despite the long, uncomfortable hours, many people enjoy working as movie extras. They like to be a part of the process and may even want to learn about behind-the-scenes production jobs to pursue those professions.
In “The Help”, the extras play an important part in the final scene in Aibileen’s church. The scene depicts a tremendous sense of community support that lets Aibileen know she has been understood and empowered by her participation in writing the book.
For a woman who is used to being quiet and letting others dictate her life’s choices, showing how she is embraced by her church is a one way to convey how her life is going to get better by speaking her mind and standing up for her rights and those of her community.