"It seemed that my lot in life was to either have big parts in small films or small parts in big films."
Small Role, Big Impact
is when a minor character (an "Under-Five" line player, as they used to say) who, through his or her actions or words, has an impact on the story far, far beyond what such a minor character ought to have normally. Note the difference between this and a One-Scene Wonder
, a character who has limited screen time but their actions or words have a huge impact on the audience
This can occasionally overlap with One-Scene Wonder
, Posthumous Character
, The Ghost
, Spear Carrier
. An Unknown Character
takes this trope to its logical conclusion by not having them appear at all.
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Anime & Manga
- Tomoo from Elfen Lied appears in one episode and one manga chapter, but it was his actions that ultimately played the biggest role in turning Lucy into a bitter figure who hated humanity (namely he beat her puppy to death with a rock/vase.) Lucy snapped and brutally executed him and his cronies, as well as someone who may or may not have meant to betray her. After that it was all down hill
- Lord Asano is never actually seen in Princess Mononoke, but those are his samurai who are dangerously close to conquering Iron Town, and it may also have been his men that Ashitaka saw brutalizing the countryside before.
- Admiral Robert J. Hanner, United Planets Space Force (ret.), from Irresponsible Captain Tylor appears only about four times in the 26 episode series, and only once in a speaking role. However, directly or indirectly, he's responsible for Tylor becoming a starship captain, the Soyokaze crew getting demoted, the war with the Raalgon being able to conclude without additional bloodshed, and his death sparks a Heroic BSOD from Tylor.
- Dying Breed rarely appear in BECK, but they inspire both Ryuusuke and Koyuki to push the band to great heights, and Eddie Lee's death causes a Heroic BSOD from almost the entire music world. Not only that, but rumors of an unreleased song of theirs drive a huge portion of the plot.
- Rin in Naruto. Her death caused a major villain's Start of Darkness, and by extention nearly every significant event in the plot.
- Grisha Jaeger of Attack on Titan. No one has seen hide nor hair of him since very early in the series. Even so, it's heavily implied he knows many mysteries about the Titans, and is suspected to be the one who gave Eren his Titan Shifting powers, via a mysterious injection.
Film - Animated
- The Little Green Aliens in Toy Story 3, upon rescuing the toys from the incinerator.
- Edna Mode from The Incredibles. She appears three times, all in the first half of the film. She's the one who alerts Helen to her husband's moonlighting hero work, and convinces Helen to go track Bob down.
- Ellie in Up, whose death is responsible for Carl's attitude for most of the film, and the real estate agents who drive Carl to fly his house to South America.
- "Frightening" Frank McCay in Monsters University only shows up in the beginning of the film but he is the one who encouraged Mike to become a scarer in the first place, thus setting off the plot of this film and the next one.
Film - Live Action
- The Blind Seer in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is only in the movie for a couple of minutes or so at the beginning of the film, and for less than a minute at the very end, but his initial scene sets up the adventures of the main characters.
- In the 1999 movie version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hippolyta (the vanquished Amazonian Queen marrying Duke Theseus) is mostly a background figure. However, in the movie when the Duke and his party discover the lovers in the morning, Hippolyta pulls Theseus aside and has some words with him, which go unheard by both the audience and other characters. Afterward Theseus announces that the lovers may marry according to their own wishes, rather than according to the decree of their families.
- Ricardo Montalban once said that he almost passed on coming back for Star Trek II because, as it is written in the script, Khan is actually only onscreen for about fifteen total minutes over the course of the entire movie, and his actual spoken dialogue is pretty minimal as well when compared to the main characters. But then he realized, as he read the story, that Khan's impact on the other characters is present on every single page of the script, and immediately agreed to reprise the role. (It's worth noting that Khan's name hadn't been put in the title yet.)
- In The Third Man, the chillingly evil Harry Lime is at the center of the plot but appears for less than 10 minutes on screen. Orson Welles plays him as just a normal guy you wouldn't look twice at, and takes three seconds in a search-light and a somewhat sheepish 'you caught me' grin to completely upstage Joseph Cotten's excellent performance and steal the film.
- Jack Palance had a film career of 50 years and over 70 movies, but when he died in 2006, one film role consistently stood out in all the obituaries and tributes dedicated to him: the role of the taunting, smiling hired gun Jack Wilson in Shane. Palance's Wilson is widely regarded as the definitive Western bad guy. Total screen time: eight minutes. Total words spoken by Wilson: less than fifty, but he makes the most out of two of them: "Prove it."
- Sarah Paulson's single scene in Serenity sets up the whole third act of the film.
- As an interesting bit of trivia, for this reason Joss Whedon cut down the role of the Operative as Mr Exposition, because he thought it was just far, far scarier for him to to be the Implacable man, and he isn't being implacable when making speeches about Mal as the worthy adversary.
- Everything that transpires in the original Star Wars trilogy can be attributed to the actions of the gunner on the Star Destroyer at the beginning of A New Hope who decides not to shoot the pod that C-3PO and R2-D2 are in.
- Darth Vader has only nine minutes of screentime in A New Hope, yet became not only the most iconic Star Wars character and the central piece of the Saga's story, but also one of the most iconic movie villains of all time.
- In Top Gun, It's because of Cougar's Heroic BSOD in the beginning that Maverick and Goose get to go to Top Gun.
- The Emperor in Onmyoji is hardly in it bar a couple of scenes in which he does very little that's useful, but it's his rejection of Sukehime that leads to most of the villain's attempts to kill the imperial family via her angry father and her eventual transformation into a demon.
- Mink in Miller's Crossing only has two short scenes (one of those over the phone), and dies less than halfway in, and yet his "relationship" with both Bernie and Eddie Dane sets off a large part of the plot.
- Dom Deluise as Bernie the agent in The Muppet Movie gets only a few minutes near the start of the film, but kicks off the plot by convincing Kermit to go to Hollywood and get into showbiz.
- Even though everyone pictures Donald Pleasence as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he only plays him in one film, You Only Live Twice, and even then his face is only revealed for less than a half-hour.
- The Wicked Witch of the West appears onscreen for only about nine minutes of the 101-minute runtime of The Wizard of Oz (with Margaret Hamilton's other character, Miss Gulch, appearing for about three minutes). And yet she is without question the character in the film who has had the greatest impact on popular culture, being remembered as one of the most frightening villains in movie history, and is the Trope Codifier for the Wicked Witch. Both Wicked and Oz: The Great and Powerful are plainly inspired by her portrayal.
- Watson's friend Stamford has about two lines, doesn't make it past the first chapter of A Study in Scarlet, and is promptly never seen again. But he introduced John Watson and Sherlock Holmes to each other, resulting in their forming a life-long friendship, and kicking off one of the most well-known and enjoyable mystery series of modern literature.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, Balon Greyjoy barely has any time interacting with the POV characters, and appears in only small parts of two chapters in the second book, and doesn't reappear before dying off screen in the third. However his decision in the second book to go to war with the North rather than joining them effectively ends the chances of the main characters to win the war they're fighting.
- Mirri Maz Duur only appeared in four chapters of A Game of Thrones, including the one where she is killed. The only POV character she interacts with is Daenerys. However, her actions become not only the driving force behind much of Daenerys's story arc, but also the reason that dragons (and in turn, stronger magic), have returned to the world.
- Lord Walder Frey appears in only three chapters of the series (or episodes of the show). He is still able to orchestrate a Wham Episode in which he helps win the war for his side by killing off several important characters.
- Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. He's a minor character in the novel (and in the film he's on screen for only fifteen minutes or so), and yet he drives the plot forward on several occasions all by himself.
- This is even more the case in the preceeding novel, Red Dragon. Unlike his relationship with Clarice, which formed the real meat of Silence of the Lambs, his relationship with Will Graham is mostly restricted to a mutual hatred. His few actions only impact the story long after his final appearance in the book.
- Lily Evans really isn't in much of Harry Potter, but her actions drove the entire characterization of Snape, and her Heroic Sacrifice set up the entire plot.
- Narcissa Malfoy in the latter Harry Potter books. In terms of facetime and notoriety, she takes backseat to her husband and son and mostly just another snobby wizard supremacist. However, in the sixth book, her binding Snape to the Unbreakable vow is ultimately responsible for the climax of the story. And in book 7, her willingness to lie to Voldemort about Harry's death is what gives Harry the chance to end him once and for all.
- Kreacher. When screenwriter Michael Goldenberg tried to adapt him out, J. K. Rowling told him that doing so would put a Spanner in the Works of the seventh film. However, Goldenberg can be forgiven for attempting it, since Kreacher's one plot-critical moment had, at the time, not yet been published.
- Sasha in Warriors: The New Prophecy. Although she only appears once or twice, she mothered the villain's children, who go on to become super important characters.
- The Maltese Falcon: General Kemidov is The Ghost, but even before the story begins, when Gutman wanted to buy the McGuffin, he realized that it would be important and replaced it with a Mock Guffin that the gang found very easy to stole, making him the real Magnificent Bastard of the story.
- The Lord of the Rings books are full of this. You have characters like Erkenbrand, a Marshall of Rohan leading the troops that Gandalf collects to save everyone at Helms Depp, or Ghan-buri-Ghan, a Noble Savage tribesman who leads the Rohirrim around an ambush so they can arrive at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in time and at full strength. And, all puns aside, let's not forget that three of the shortest and least competent characters are the ones who won the war—Frodo, Sam and Gollum.
- Also occurs in The Hobbit with characters like Bard, and elsewhere as well — Tolkien was obviously very fond of the idea that everyone, not just the protagonists or the most powerful beings, can have a major influence on the world.
- Arianna Ortega in The Dresden Files interacts only with Harry, and appears in a grand total of three chapters before biting it. Her plans result in Harry damning his soul forever, and sets the plots for book 12 and 13 in motion.
- The minor Red Court Vampire "Bianca St. Claire" only appears in Books 1 & 3. However her falling out and subsequent attempts at petty revenge against Harry both start off the war with the White Council and eventually gives Harry the opportunity to wipe out her entire species. Whoops?
- He Who Walks Behind. He is a powerful demon knight on the levels of being a Physical God. As of book 14 Cold Days, he was only in a single chapter flashback in book 13 Ghost Story. Besides that, he was referenced maybe five times in the entire series. But his actions in Harry's past, the brutal murder of a gas station attendant Harry tried robbing drove him to avenge the little guy and develop the Chronic Hero Syndrome that would make Harry face down forces that no mortal had tried challenging before.
- The Story Within a Story in Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates about a boy plugging a dike with his finger and preventing a flood is more famous than the actual story of Hans Brinker and his skates.
- Clarisse McClellan from Fahrenheit 451 is obscurely written out of the story very early on; however, her influence on Guy Montag instigates the entire plot and every event that happens therein. (Some adaptations even write her back in later.)
- In the present-day The Wheel of Time, Aginor is one of the least appearing, least accomplished members of the Forsaken ( he dies twice without accomplishing much that's noteworthy). In the backstory, on the other hand, he created the Shadowspawn races, meaning he was responsible for most of the mooks the heroes fight and for untold suffering caused by his "children" over the millennia.
Live Action TV
- In LOST, Jacob never appeared onscreen until the end of the fifth season... in an episode in which he was killed at the end. In the next season he appeared just a handful of times as a ghost or in flashbacks. Nevertheless, he is one of the major characters in the Myth Arc of the series.
- Phil Davis appeared on Merlin in a guest spot that lasts no more than five minutes. In that time he mortally wounds King Uther, a major character who had been on the show since the beginning, and changes the entire course of the show.
- Doctor Who: The undeniably heroic Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (yes, we know who she is), played by the inimitable Penelope Wilton, appears in a grand total of four episodes. In the third of those, the Doctor's reaction to something she does changes the entire course of history and has serious consequences for the next three seasons of that show and all of Torchwood. Then, despite having been thoroughly screwed over by said Doctor, she proceeds to help save the world with a tear-jerking Heroic Sacrifice. She's also a Four-episode Wonder, as she's one of the most iconic supporting characters of the new series and a fan favourite.
- Cass, in the "Night of the Doctor" minisode. She appears in Doctor Who for all of 6 minutes, most of which is after her death. But her death is what pushes the Doctor over the Despair Event Horizon and into participating in the Time War, which had a HUGE impact on the rest of the series.
- From Hannibal, we have Garrett Jacob Hobbes, the serial killer known as the Minnesota Shrike. He appears as the primary antagonist of the first episode, and his crime spree is stopped by the end of the episode when he is shot to death by protagonist Will Graham. However, the guilt Will feels over killing Hobbes, combined with the guilt Hobbes' daughter Abigail feels for having an indirect hand in her father's murders, contributes a great deal to both Will and Abigail's storylines in Season One.
- Jessie Taylor in Dancing on the Edge, whose role is to sing and get murdered, but remains one of the most memorable aspects of the miniseries.
- John Colicos played Kor, the first ever Klingon, only once on Star Trek: The Original Series before reprising the role decades later on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, yet his Genghis Khan-influenced performance set the standard for all Klingons throughout the whole franchise.
- Game of Thrones: see A Song of Ice and Fire above.
- Breaking Bad: Combo was killed mid-way through season 2 after only a few lines, but his death caused Jesse and Walt to hire Saul as their lawyer, which had a huge impact on the plot - among other things, Saul was the one to hook them up with Gus. And then he affects the plot again in season 3 when Jesse meets someone related to the kid who killed him.
- Brock Cantillo. He may be a little kid with very few appearances, but when Jesse found out Walter poisoned him back in Season 4, he permanently cuts ties with Walter and becomes a significant threat.
- Bane in Batman: Arkham Asylum. His only appearance is a brief, yet epic confrontation, but his Venom serum is the catalyst for the game's plot.
- The "Oriental Gentleman" from Grand Theft Auto III, an unnamed man who just so happens to be a prisoner in the same police convoy the player character is in - the fact that the game consists of typical Grand Theft Auto fare rather than the player being behind bars for the whole game (or at least a few minutes, considering the series) is because the Colombian Cartel decided to hold up the convoy and take this one prisoner.
- High Templar Karass of Starcraft II fame. He and his men meet up with Zeratul, help him fight through the zerg, and then he and his remaining troops pull a Last Stand Heroic Sacrifice to allow Zeratul to escape. Yet those few minutes, he and his men might have saved the universe.
- In MOTHER 3, Hinawa, Lucas and Claus' mother, is only seen in the prologue of the game then dies offscreen during Chapter 1. Even so, she has a big impact in the story afterward, since she later saves Lucas' life through her father's dreams, then helps bring Claus to his senses despite him being robotically controlled.
- Joe in Show Boat. It helps that he has one of the best Broadway songs ever written, "Ol' Man River."
- It's easy to forget that Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet is only in about 3 scenes in the play. But as Isaac Asimov pointed out succinctly in his analysis of the play, without Tybalt, the rest of the play's events would never have happened.
- Jessica, daughter to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, has very few lines, but the whole play hinges on her elopement and her conversion to Christianity, which drive her dad over the edge. Whether she's seen as a "good" or "bad" character is a key decision when staging the play, and directors tend to give her plenty of extra stage time to pray in Hebrew or look tragic. Lorenzo could also be seen this way—besides being the boy who steals Jessica, he has one of the play's best soliloquies ("How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank...")
- Dr. Henry Killinger has only two major appearances (with bit roles in few others) in The Venture Bros., but in each of those appearances, plays a significant role in shaping the Venture universe.
- His first appearance in season 2's I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills has him rebuild the Monarch's organization and reunites him with Dr. Girlfriend. These events lead up to their marriage at the end of season 2 and their evil-doing abilities have gone up a a few levels ever since.
- His second major appearance in season 3's The Doctor is Sin has him attempt to do the same thing for Doctor Venture and Venture Industries, but ultimately serves to give Venture a Heel Realization. Venture's Jerkass tendencies have been slightly lessened ever since, though he still falls into the Jerkass With A Heart Of Gold category more often than not.