Tertiary Characters: What are they, and how can you use them?

April 3, 2023


You have a brilliant script with deeply layered primary and secondary characters with a unique story, so you might think that's it. But hold on, to make a movie stand out, to have a script be the ultimate success, you need well-written tertiary characters too. Wondering what they are? Well, you are in luck because today we will be discussing them.

tertiary characters, developing characters

Throughout cinematic history, secondary and tertiary characters have been like unsung heroes. They may not dominate the screen, but they settle their roots in our minds and deserve recognition.

So let's dive in!

What are Tertiary Characters

Before we delve into tertiary roles and their presence in films, we must understand the key levels of characters for a successful script. You cannot write your protagonist, antagonist, and a few supporting characters and call it a day. You must pay attention to the hierarchy to understand the different layers.

Three Levels of Characters

These are the three character levels in filmmaking to be mindful of:


Your main folks. The characters your story revolves around hence they play the central role. The audience will closely observe them and fall in love; they may even form an emotional connection with your main character.


The recurring people act as the secondary characters in the story. While the audience does not learn too much about their lives, they remain relevant and will appear in multiple scenes.


Third, comes the tertiary folks, and while these characters may show up in only a few scenes, they serve a specific purpose and sometimes leave a lasting impact no matter how small their role. They populate your story world. The audience barely learns anything about them, sometimes maybe just the surface stuff.

Why are Tertiary Characters Important

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of The Shining? Those terrifying twins, right? And guess what they are categorized as? You got it! Tertiary characters. Those girls appear in the hallway in one or two scenes but play a very significant albeit eery role in the movie for the main character arc.

the shining, supporting characters

Another strong example that may not be memorable but sets the entire basis of the story? The dead body from the ever-beloved and extremely emotional movie Stand By Me.

So you see, you cannot remove the importance of even a tertiary character that may only be there for a limited time, say a line or two, and then disappear. They somehow enforce the focal point of the plot.

Tertiary or minor characters are necessary and significant, for they often come to uncover some critical clue a main or secondary character seeks, or their presence brings a layer of mystery to the scene. Or they could act as a generic crowd member to bring more believability to the story.

These roles add to a great story's overall tapestry and can help communicate certain tones, themes, or atmospheres while playing a part in the main act's character development.

Experts state that a script with well-defined secondary and tertiary characters is a testament to the writer's excellence.

A movie will be a snoozefest with just the main roles or recurring characters; it needs that added element to engross the viewers. After all, can you imagine the Harry Potter series without Mr Filch and his odd existence? Or the many other enthralling supporting characters?

harry potter characters

These characters surround your protagonists; hence, they should be well-formed and fully fleshed out to fit the story. A solid tertiary character is supposed to make your audience wonder about their story, life, and where they will go next!

How To Use Tertiary Characters

Now that we've covered the role tertiary acts can play in the story, let's talk about how you can use them to use their potential fully.

Below are some ways of using the tertiary characters.


You can use them as foils: characters that contrast with your main character by spotlighting their strengths and helping the audience dive deeper to understand the protagonist's motive and personality.


Another popular way to use tertiary roles is by bringing them into the mix as mentors. These guiding figures can give primary characters support, wisdom, and enlightenment to aid their quest.

Love Interest

Got some romantic genre situations? Bringing a tertiary character as a love interest can help you navigate the story. Their presence can develop the primary character's motive and traits. Love interests could also bring conflict as the primary character could have to make certain choices.


The tertiary acts can also serve as antagonists if you proffer them opposing goals or motives. Sure, they are not the main antagonist, but they can still play an important part in your story's conflict.

Comic Relief

Sometimes stories need a bit of comic reprieve, and tertiary roles are perfect. These characters can be eccentric, quirky, and funny to lighten the mood. They can balance out your story's severity or dramatic aspects, giving the audience a much-needed break from the main characters' heavier plot elements or strives.

Some Tips for Good Tertiary Character Development

Don't worry; we won't leave you without providing tips to help you create a fantastic tertiary character. After all, developing tertiary characters suggests you are at the top of your game. Let's discuss them

Unique Personality or Voice

Yes, your tertiary character will be on the screen briefly, but that does not mean they cannot make an impact. Give them a unique personality or trait they can portray through actions or dialogue.

hunger games, tertiary character, supporting character

Consider the backstory

No matter what level of character you are writing, a good backstory is key. There is no need to have an elaborate back story for your tertiary people; give them enough to help the audience understand how they fit into the larger story universe and why they are how they are.

Make Their Presence Important

Another good way to develop your tertiary roles is by using them as tools to uncover more about your main characters. You can contrast their personalities with protagonists or use them to act as a foil.

Clear Role Purpose

Whatever type of tertiary role you write, ensure their intent is clear. While your tertiary acts might not be overly significant in a plot, they must have a purpose. You can give them a specific function or job as the bartender, barista, or doorman.

Let them be more than mere background folks and use them to add complexity and texture to your main, secondary, and fictional worlds.

Examples of Memorable Tertiary Characters

Here are some tertiary characters that left an impact on cinematic history.

  • Yoda in the Star Wars universe is the mentor providing training and guidance to Luke Skywalker.
  • Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park is the foil acting as the only individual talking sense amidst the chaos of what's happening.
  • All other characters in the Toy Story universe.
  • Breaking Bad's Gustavo Fring is the antagonist who is a formidable foe to the primary characters.
  • The precious Gollum from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is the antagonist who tries his best to get into Frodo’s head and way to steal the One Ring while Frodo is bent on destroying it.
  • Everybody's favourite Home Alone gave us Kevin's mom contrasting perfectly with his character and offering a different perspective on the transpiring events.


Movies need the complete story, and adding tertiary roles brings a nuance to the mix that ties everything together. It gives the audience a deeper look at the story and helps them appreciate everything even more. We all love our tertiary characters, for things would be a tad bland without them.

We hope this article helps you understand the importance of tertiary characters, their purpose and how you can ensure to development of the best ones.

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