A few years ago, after watching one too many whodunnit TV mysterys, I coined my
- Law of Economy of Characters
- The killer is innocuously introduced in the first 20 minutes.
In real life, the killer may not be known until late in the investigation—if ever.
In a TV mystery, any non-recurring character who gets more than a few lines has to be a potential suspect—to the audience. The character is not there gratuitously. Their salary is being paid for a reason.
It’s not universally true, but it works more often than not. It’s less true in books, where throwaway characters are easy to introduce.
Googling around, I found the following, attributed to Roger Ebert:
- Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters:
- Any main character whose purpose is not readily apparent must be more important than he or she seems
- Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters:
- Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot: This "mystery" person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous. Cf. the friendly neighbor in Lady In White. (See also Unmotivated Closeup)
I’m in good company.