Hierarchy works well in a stable environment. – Mary Douglas
The events that take place in your screenplay may not be stable, but the organization of your story and the creation of characters within it must be. You plan it before you build it. And understanding character hierarchy is part of that plan. Whether your screenwriting, or writing a novel, this heireachy is key.
But when I talk about hierarchy, I’m not referring to any system in which one character has authority over other characters within the world of the story. The condescending boss, for example, might be a minor character in the script, but clearly ranks higher on the corporate ladder than the shipping clerk protagonist.
Take Oliver Stone’s Platoon: the protagonist Chris follows orders from supporting characters Sgt. Elias and Sgt. Barnes, yet Lt. Wolfe, a minor character, is in charge of them all. But if we take Lt. Wolfe out of the mix, the story still works; we lose Chris, however, it’s a completely different film.
So character hierarchy, in contrast, refers to how characters rank above other characters as far as their importance within the screenplay. Clearly, the most important character is your protagonist. It is her story. We hope and fear for her. She is the one who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. Your protagonist is at the top of the hierarchical system – hands down. Without her, there is no story.
But what about everyone else: villains, mentors, friends, rivals? What if it’s a buddy picture or an ensemble piece? What about other main characters, supporting roles, subplot characters, even one-string parts?
It all depends upon the specific variables within each story. Sometimes the villain ranks a close second behind the hero. It’s hard not to rank Hannibal Lector any lower than second place in Silence of the Lambs. And sometimes the villain actually is the protagonist, therefore becoming an anti-hero. Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a prime example.
In a buddy picture, both protagonists share the top rung, with one always reaching a little higher than the other. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs and Murtaugh are partners, and even though both men have clear character arcs, it’s obvious we’re following Rigg’s story. In a disaster film, the antagonist is The Perfect Storm, a Twister, or The Towering Inferno, so then mentors, friends, and rivals rank close behind the hero. In slasher films, hierarchical placement depends mostly upon length of survival. The longer a character stays alive, the higher on the ladder they stand.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part, character hierarchy in screenwriting and writing can be broken up into four main classes: main characters, supporting characters, subplot characters, and one-string characters.