What Is a Deuteragonist? How to Write Great Secondary Characters

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Photo Source: “Breaking Bad” Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Open up any screenwriting book or Google “how to write a script” and you’ll come across a litany of terms both familiar and foreign: “protagonist,” “antagonist,” “beat,” “plot,” “climax,” “inciting incident”... the list goes on. One word that may seem completely out of nowhere (it certainly isn’t one I use on a daily basis in my writing) is “deuteragonist.” And yet, this is one of the most important characters you will write in your story.

What is a deuteragonist?

The deuteragonist is, quite simply, the second most important character in the story. The word comes from Greek: “deuteragōnistēs,” which means “second actor.” 

And that’s it. That’s the definition of deuteragonist. The second main character. Done.

Just kidding, of course we’re not done.

You might be asking, “Well, what does that actually look like? Is it the antagonist? The best friend? The love interest?” Yes, yes, and yes.

The deuteragonist comes in a variety of formsit all depends on how important and present they are in the narrative. They almost always have their own arc, but more importantly, they must have a significant influence on the protagonist’s arc.

RELATED: How to Write a Screenplay Using Three-Act Structure 

The sidekick: Most often found in adventures, fantasy, and comedies, the sidekick (or best friend) fits the role of deuteragonist to our hero. They give guidance at low points, provide comic relief (that may also be covering up for hidden depths), and in some cases, act as the Greek chorus by voicing the comments and questions in the audience’s head.

The antagonist: Not always, but a lot of memorable antagonists are a story’s deuteragonist, even if their screen time isn’t very long. This is most often the case when the villain is the perfect foil for the protagonist—a dark mirror version that reflects the inverse of their arc. If you find yourself writing a “you’re not so different, you and I” speech, you may have found your deuteragonist.

The love interest: Obviously, in a rom-com or romantic drama, the love interest automatically fills the role of the deuteragonist. But then the question becomes: Which part of the pair? Kate Hudson or Matthew McConaughey? The line is a fine one to walk, but the answer is whichever character is driving the story the most. Whose wants, goals, and actions kick off the plot and keep it moving? (Note: You’ll run into a similar situation with buddy comedies such as “Lethal Weapon” or “The Nice Guys.”)

Deuteragonists examples 

Jack Dawson: In James Cameron’s “Titanic,” Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the deuteragonist to Rose (Kate Winslet), the protagonist. The lead character arc that wraps around the film is Rose discovering she doesn’t belong in the high society she’s chained to; Jack is the spark that sets it off. This is a great example of the deuteragonist serving as a love interest.

Hans Gruber: One of cinema’s greatest villains, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is the deuteragonist to John McClane (Bruce Willis), the protagonist of John McTiernan’s “Die Hard.” Every step of the film’s plot is one character reacting to and one-upping the other’s last move. Because Hans is more directly involved than the average bad guy, he supersedes Sergeant Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the movie’s tritagonist (but that’s a term for another day).

Jesse Pinkman: One of TV’s most influential deuteragonists, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is vital to Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) rise from schoolteacher to drug kingpin on “Breaking Bad.” Interestingly enough, show creator Vince Gilligan planned on killing Jesse off in the first season but realized how integral the Jesse-Walter dynamic was. This demonstrates the storytelling power of a great deuteragonist, and why writers need to think about them as carefully as their protagonist. 

Boyd Crowder: Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) of “Justified” fame is another TV character who wasn’t supposed to last long, taking a bullet in the pilot episode. However, it soon became clear that the show’s justice-seeking protagonist, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), and Boyd were two sides of the same coin.

How to write a deuteragonist

The trick to writing an effective deuteragonist is to ensure they are complex, interesting, and memorable—while also remembering they are a secondary character. Sounds difficult, no?

It’s not as impossible as it sounds, as long as you fully understand your protagonist’s arc. Everything stems from there. The deuteragonist’s goals, wants, and desires should reflect your main character’s journey; they’re exactly what the protagonist needs, whether they know it or not.

Spoiler alert: In the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Frodo (Elijah Wood) is able to carry the One Ring because he is the special, chosen-one archetype common in fantasy stories. In contrast, it’s because Sam (Sean Astin) is so purely, lovingly normal that he finds the strength to carry Frodo the last few steps.

In “Pretty Woman,” Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) is a ruthless businessman whose life revolves around transactions—so, of course, it takes falling for sex worker Vivian (Julia Roberts) for him to learn you can’t buy a genuine connection.

You need to avoid, at all costs, creating a deuteragonist that completely outshines the protagonist. Think of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies or Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) in “Kick-Ass,” side characters with such outsized personalities and storylines they made the main character feel bland by comparison. 

So, yes, you do need to make your deuteragonist unique, deep, and engaging. Just remember, they aren’t your lead… they’re your second.