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"It seemed that my lot in life was to either have big parts in small films or small parts in big films."
Bruce Campbell, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor
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Small Role, Big Impact is when a minor character (sometimes a very, very minor character) 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.

Examples of Small Role, Big Impact include:


Anime & Manga

  • 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.
  • 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 Suke-hime 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.
  • 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.
  • The real plot of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind begins with a ship crashing onto the beach with Princess Listelle who was a hostage inside, who then dies of her wounds, which then leads to the other warring kingdoms to investigate.
  • Although Grampa Gohan from Dragon Ball is dead by the time the story begins, him raising Goku after finding him in a pod from when Frezia destroyed his planet Planet Vegeta does count. Goku would even go on to call his first child Gohan after him.

Comics

  • Joe Chill is the mugger who killed Bruce Wayne's parents, ultimately making him the creator of Batman.
  • The same can be said for the killer of Uncle Ben in Spider-man.

Film - Animated

  • Pixar:
    • The Little Green Men in Toy Story 3. They're still comic relief but they save the toys' lives in the climax.
    • A more important one is with Andy's Mom where she throws out the toys in the trash bag.
    • 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.
    • The Barracuda in Finding Nemo who eats Coral and all the other eggs expect Nemo.
    • The Delinquent Road Hazards from Cars. They appear for less than two minutes but their tomfoolery leads to Lightning ultimately finding himself in Radiator Springs.
    • Ellie in Up. Her death was Carl's Cynicism Catalyst and her dream to see Paradise Falls drives the plot forward.
  • Disney Animated Canon:
    • The title character of Sleeping Beauty. She has about twenty lines but the plot revolves around her.
    • Beauty and the Beast:
      • The Enchantress. Has no lines, or even ascribable motivations, but curses the Prince with his signature defect.
      • Maurice. He's on-screen for a very short amount of time but he leads to Belle and the Beast meeting with his return to the village leading Gaston to whip a mob to kill the Beast.
    • The girl who plays "Fix-It Felix Jr." in Wreck-It Ralph to discover that Ralph is missing that sends Felix off on his quest to find Ralph and places the arcade game in jeopardy.
    • Susan the pet rescue/adoption lady in Lilo and Stitch approved of Lilo's adoption of Stitch. Things would have gone differently if Lilo didn't show the councilwoman those adoption papers.
    • Tadashi in Big Hero 6 burns to death within ten or so minutes. And that's what drives Hiro throughout the whole film.
  • The Fishermen is the first witness of The Iron Giant when he crash landed into the sea from space. He then tells this encounter to Kent Mansley who then begins his hunt for the Giant.
  • The Homeless man in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is responsible for taking Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny into the R rated movie they wanted to see.
  • If the nosey woman Jillian never went on the date with Gru in Despicable Me 2, Gru never would have fell in love with Lucy.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse:
    • The Green Goblin. He may have been Demoted to Extra, but his beating down the original Spider-Man started the chain of events that led to Miles becoming the new Spider-Man.
    • Richard and Vanessa Fisk. They appear only for one flashback which ends in their deaths. And that's what prompts Kingpin to set the whole plot in motion.


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: The Wrath of Khan 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."
  • Star Wars:
    • Jar-Jar Binks was Demoted to Extra following The Phantom Menace. Yet in Attack of the Clones, he convinced the Senate to give Palpatine emergency powers...
    • The title squadron of Rogue One. They only lasted for one film but they got the Death Star plans to the Rebellion, ensuring that the Empire would eventually fall.
    • Emperor Palpatine has little direct screentime in The Rise of Skywalker. But the fear of his return drives the film's plot.
  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Ho Yinsen dies at the end of the first act of Iron Man. Not only did he play a role in the creation of Iron Man but his Heroic Sacrifice inspired Tony to become a better person, ultimately ensuring that Tony would be the one to save the universe.
    • Doctor Abraham Erskine from Captain America: The First Avenger. Short lived as he was, his Super Soldier serum created the Red Skull and Captain America and his refusal to write its formula down prompted other scientists, such as Bruce Banner, to recreate it. Howard Stark ultimately succeeded in recreating the formula, making him a target for HYDRA's Winter Soldier, knowledge that Steve deliberately withheld from Tony Stark, ultimately breaking up the Avengers.
    • The rat from Avengers: Endgame who pushed the button and freed Scott Lang from the Quantum Realm. When Scott brought the knowledge of the Realm's temporal properties back to the Avengers, they used to those properties to enact their plan to undo Thanos' Snap.
  • Back to the Future:
    • In Part I, a women interrupts Marty and Jennifer's makeout session, giving him a flyer regarding her historical society. On that flyer is that exact time that the lighting bolt will strike the clock tower, allowing Marty to get back to the future.
    • In Part II, a man in 2015 tells Marty that he'd like to go back in time and place some money on the Cubs (the World Series Champions). Not only does it set up this film's plot, but ultimately leads into the Immediate Sequel.
  • Tina in Bumblebee. Her petty bullying of Charlie leads Bumblebee and Memo to goad her into taking revenge. Revenge leads to a police chase that forces Charlie to leave Bee at home the next day, leading him to wreck the house out of curiosity, triggering the Energon surge that led to the Decepticons and Sector Seven tracking him down and nearly causing an Alien Invasion.
  • Although they only appear in the opening, the Echidna tribe in the Sonic movie are the reason why Sonic is on Earth.
  • The Liberian Ghost is the first Ghost that the Ghostbusters meet.
  • Pete in Gremlins accidentally spills water on Gizmo which is one of the three gremlin rules on preventing multiplying.
  • The parents in The Breakfast Club are the core of the problems for Bender, Allison, Claire, Brain and Andrew.
  • Bernie the talent agent in The Muppet Movie inspires Kermit to go Hollywood.
  • Officer John Bishop in Child's Play killed Charles Lee Ray, turning him into the notorious and quintessential killer doll Chucky we all know today.

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.
  • Hannibal Lector 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 things 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.
  • 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 Story Within a Story in Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates about a boy plugging a dyke with his finger and preventing a flood is more famous than the actual story of Hans Brinker and his skates.

Live Action TV

  • Doctor Who:
    • The Kaleds. Their only real appearance was in "Genesis of the Daleks." And as the title indicates, if not for them, the Daleks wouldn't exist.
    • Caecilius from "The Fires of Pompeii" only appeared for that episode but he had a massive impact on the tenure of the Twelfth Doctor.
    • Cass from "The Night of the Doctor." By refusing the help of a Time Lord, she convinced the Eighth Doctor that he could no longer run from the Last Great Time War, setting up his regeneration into the War Doctor who would eventually arrive at the only way to end the Time War.
    • Captain Adelaide Brooke from "The Waters of Mars". As the Tenth Doctor himself says, without her, all the great human empires seen in countless other episodes would likely not exist. Beyond that, her scathing last words to the Doctor help set up the Time Lord Victorious maxiseries.
  • 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.
  • The late Max in How I Met Your Mother. His death prompted the Mother to swear off relationships until she found the perfect guy.
  • 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.
  • Mon-El's unnamed guard in Supergirl. By saving Mon-El's life, he ensured Mon-El survived to pull a Heel Face Turn which led to Mon-El forming the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st century, saving Earth, and its various colonies, from being Crapsack Worlds.
  • If Mr. Heckles in the Friends episode "The One With The Flashback" hadn't claimed that was Chandler's roommate to Eric, then Joey wouldn't have been part of the main group. And if it hadn't been for Joey, then Chandler and Monica may never have gotten together.

Video Games

  • Bane in Batman: Arkham Asylum. His only appearance is a brief, yet epic confrontation, but his Venom serum is basically the catalyst for the entire 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 due entirely to the fact that the Colombian Cartel decided to hold up the convoy and take this one prisoner.
    • Simeon Yetarian in Grand Theft Auto V. He only really appears for three missions in the game's opening but he ultimately leads to Franklin meeting Michael.
  • A Rat scares Luigi in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam which opens the Paper Mario book that Luigi was holding and release the inhabitants living inside.
  • Dave Panpa only appears a few times in the whole Henry Stickmin series, but if he had checked the package he delivered to Henry at the beginning of Escaping the Prison, the entire series from that point onward likely wouldn't have happened.
  • The Injustice franchise would have never happened if the Joker tricked Superman into killing both Lois and their unborn son which then blew up Metropolis as there was a detonator he placed inside her. There is a second Joker but he is from a different universe, while the main one got killed by an inevitable enraged Superman.
  • Had the King in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time listened to his daughter Zelda through her visions, the entire game would have never happened.
  • Thomas Downs from Red Dead Redemption 2 gave Arthur his tuberculosis in an early mission in Chapter 2.
  • Uka Uka, despite only appearing in the opening of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, kickstarts the game's plot by using all his energy to open the portal that both awakens the Quantum Masks and frees Dr. Neo Cortex and N. Tropy from their prison.

Theatre

  • 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...")

Western Animation

  • Emilie Agreste in Miraculous Ladybug has spent three seasons being functionally dead. And it's the fact that drives Hawk Moth in his quest.
  • Mara in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a Posthumous Character but her act of defiance against the First Ones means that there's a planet to have the series on.
  • Steven Universe:
    • Though Bismuth spent most of the show in a bubble, a flashback reveals her to be the Gem who poofed Lapis Lazuli. When found, Lapis was placed in that mirror which Steven eventually freed her from, setting up the return of the Homeworld Gems and the whole Myth Arc. Even more than that, Bismuth's idea of the Breaking Point gave Rose Quartz/Pink Diamond a pretty good idea on how to quickly end the Gem War.
    • Blue Zircon only appeared in "The Trial" but she poked major holes in the official story of how Pink Diamond was shattered. Enough that Steven eventually could not be deterred from finding the truth of what happened to her: She became Rose Quartz.
    • The Famethyst. Interacting with them was the first step of Pink Diamond's Heel Face Turn, saving the Earth.
    • Marty. As Greg lampshades, if it wasn't for him, he might have never met Rose and decided to settle in Beach City.
  • Transformers:
    • Skywarp in The Transformers. He's a petty thug who can barely function without Starscream's constant supervision and had zero time in the spotlight but he was the first Transformer to be reactivated by Teletraan-I. By dragging Megatron into the path of the repair beam, he ensured that there was a series at all.
    • Primus in Transformers Prime. He was never depicted but without him, not only would the Cybertronian race not exist, Unicron would have destroyed the universe at the dawn of time.
    • In the first season of Transformers: Cyberverse, Perceptor has no lines and merely repairs the Space Bridge to send Windblade to Earth. This leads Windblade to find Bumblebee, setting up the whole story.
  • Taz only appeared in 5 theatrical Looney Tunes shorts of the golden age due to the head of Warner Bros Animation at the time hating him. Today, he's one of the most poplar Looney Tunes characters and he inspired Crash Bandicoot.
  • Magister Labrid doesn't survive the opening two-parter of Ben 10: Alien Force. Before he passed however, he managed to point Ben towards the threat with his passing ultimately cementing Kevin's Heel Face Turn and desire to become a better person.
  • Had Invader Zim not been cancelled, Smikka Smikka Smoodoo would have a huge impact on the long term Myth Arc by switching the addresses on Zim and Tenn's packages.
    • Membrane and Minimoose in Enter the Florpus. Neither appear for very long but a combination of Membrane's resources and intellect and Minimoose's dark matter channeling capabilities are what drive the film's plot.
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