In some movies I watch, there is a character who, at the beginning of the movie, seems like they're supposed to be a minor or background character, but the person playing them is a name-brand actor and so you know that they are not going to remain a minor or background character. Sometimes, for plot/story telling reasons, it is the case that this character is intentionally (falsely) portrayed as just a minor character at the beginning. However, since the actor playing the character is a big deal actor, it is easy to suspect that this minor character isn't so minor after all, and this destroys the illusion of the character not being important.

Is there a term that means this? A character that is intentionally initially portrayed as not being important to the plot even though they are but that it is fairly obvious to the audience from the beginning, based on the star-level of the actor portraying the character, that the character won't remain a minor character?

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    @DarthLocke Just look at Julia Roberts' appearance in Law & Order: she barely features on-screen in the first half of the episode, but you just know that she's likely the killer or at least very important to the plot because why otherwise have Julia Roberts on your show? If you can get her (in part because she was dating one of its leads), surely you're not just gonna have her in one scene.
    – BCdotWEB
    Nov 28, 2017 at 15:26
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    this is more than a cameo which is usually a small part for a big name star or recognizable celebrity (Matt Damon in Thor Ragnarok, Donald Trump in Home Alone 2, etc.) A cameo is just a small part - it does not denote a part that is critical to the plot in some way. I'm not sure if there is a term for what you are describing - would be helpful to have some examples. Nov 28, 2017 at 16:29
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    @DarthLocke, an example (not the best one, but the one I can think of quickly) is Jamie Foxx in "The Amazing Spider-man 2". A name brand actor playing a small-time engineer? Obviously he's not going to stay a small-time engineer the whole movie. This isn't the best example of what I'm talking about, since Foxx's character is focused on a bit in the early movie even before he "becomes" a major character, but it gives an idea. BCdotWEB's Law & Order example is a good one. Nov 28, 2017 at 16:45
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    @Tetsujin: that's another trope. Have a big name to promote your show. Kill him/her to show that everything is possible. Bonus point if (s)he is was leader, so you gain a leadership crisis. It happened to Robert Patrick at the beginning of Stargate:Atlantis
    – Taladris
    Nov 30, 2017 at 11:20

1 Answer 1


Based on a link in a link provided by BCdotWEB, what I am describing is known on tvtropes.org as "Not-So-Small Role", and it appears to also be a corollary of Roger Ebert's "Law of Conservation of Characters", which is quoted as being

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 THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

Thus, if you have an expensive actor, the Law of Conservation of Characters is sure to strongly apply and you can all but guarantee they will be important to the plot at some point.


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