This post is by Jason Hellerman from No Film School

One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate when watching movies and TV shows is when the writers know exactly how many characters they need to tell a story.

A little more context: I was reading a friend’s script last week, and it was full of interesting characters that took the screenplay in places I didn’t anticipate. That sounds great, but when I read the last page, I racked my brain to think why I didn’t connect with the idea.

I came to the conclusion that while the protagonist had an active journey, the more compelling stories and backstories were in the periphery. It was almost as if some of these characters needed to be rolled into one, deleted, or have the interesting parts of them stripped and added to our main character.

There was no following the law of economy of character in this script.

Today, we’re going to discuss that law, delve into its application, and its meaning.

Let’s get started.


The ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ Definition

The ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ is the idea that a screenplay should include only those characters essential to the story’s progression.

Every character should have a clear purpose, whether it’s to drive the plot forward, reveal key information, provide insight into the protagonist’s personality, or contribute to the thematic message of the film.

Characters who fail to serve a distinct purpose may lead to a cluttered, unfocused narrative.

And therefore, they should be cut out of the story.

Why Do Writers Need This Law?

'Law of Economy of Characters'

Let’s get this straight up top, this “law” was meant to be broken. There’s no hard and fast rules within screenwriting. I could sit here and list a ton of movies and TV shows with expansive characters that totally work.

But with many amateur screenplays I read, the issue lies within there being way too many characters and not enough stakes or characterization to go around.

That’s why I find the ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ a vital principle for writers.

Let’s look at what it can give your screenplay:

  1. Narrative Focus: One of the primary reasons for adopting the ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ is to maintain clarity and focus in the narrative. Each character in a story should have a distinct purpose, whether it’s to move the plot forward, develop another character, or enhance the thematic depth of the story. By limiting the number of characters to only those who are essential, writers can avoid confusing the audience and diluting the impact of the main characters and the plot.
  2. Character Development: With fewer characters, writers have more space to develop each one more fully. This leads to richer, more nuanced characters. When every character is essential, each one has the opportunity to be more fully realized, allowing for deeper emotional connections with the audience.
  3. Efficient Storytelling: The ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ encourages efficient storytelling. By eliminating superfluous characters, the story becomes more streamlined and impactful. This efficiency is particularly important in screenwriting, where time is limited and every scene must count towards advancing the story or developing characters.
  4. Pacing: Fewer characters can lead to tighter pacing and a more engaging narrative rhythm. Stories that are overpopulated with characters often suffer from pacing issues, as the narrative needs to accommodate multiple character arcs and interactions, potentially slowing down the progression of the main plot.
  5. Audience Engagement: A story with a well-defined set of characters is easier for audiences to follow and become emotionally invested in. Too many characters can overwhelm the audience, making it difficult to remember who is who and to feel emotionally connected to the story.
  6. Creative Discipline: The ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ forces writers to think creatively about how they use characters. It encourages the merging of roles where appropriate and ensures that each character’s presence in the story is justified, pushing writers to be more inventive and thoughtful in their character design.
  7. Genre Compliance: Different genres have different requirements for character use. In a thriller, for example, a lean character list can heighten tension and focus the audience’s attention on a central conflict. In contrast, a character-driven drama might focus more on the depth and relationships of a smaller cast. Adhering to this law helps writers meet genre expectations effectively.

Examples of  ‘Law of Economy of Characters’ Across Film and TV

12-angry-cast

I wanted to highlight some titles I think actually do this incredibly well. It can be a balancing act to get all this in line, but if you take your time, your narrative will appreciate you.

  1. Breaking Bad (TV Series): This critically acclaimed series is a prime example of the economy of characters. Each character serves a purpose in Walter White’s transformation and the unfolding of the plot. Even minor characters have distinct roles that contribute to the overall narrative, ensuring that no character feels superfluous.
  2. Gravity (2013 Film): Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller is a masterclass in minimalism, featuring essentially two characters played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The film focuses intensely on their struggle for survival in space, making every character moment crucial to the story.
  3. 12 Angry Men (1957 Film): This classic film demonstrates the law through a limited cast, all confined to a single location—a jury deliberation room. Each juror represents a unique perspective, contributing to the central theme of justice and moral ambiguity.
  4. Fargo (TV Series): The series, especially its first season, uses a limited number of characters, each intricately woven into the plot. Characters are introduced only as necessary, and each one adds significantly to the narrative’s progression. There’s a lot of them, but each has a role and all of it is centered on the main character arc.
  5. Moonlight (2016 Film): This Oscar-winning film is a study in character-focused storytelling. The narrative follows a single character through three stages of his life, with every supporting character serving to explore and reflect aspects of his identity and struggles, and coming back in and out of the story to show their impact on him.

By ensuring that each character serves a significant role in the narrative, screenwriters can create more focused, compelling, and emotionally engaging stories.

Whether it’s through developing multi-dimensional characters or employing them to serve multiple narrative functions, this law is fundamental in crafting effective and memorable screenplays.

Let me know what you think in the comments.