Main characters are great. Without them, we’d have no one to project ourselves onto. But have you ever read/watched/listened to/smelled a story and been more interested in one of the side characters? Maybe they’ve got a good sense of humor. Maybe their backstory really speaks to you. Maybe you’re just tired of the white male anti-hero. Whatever the reason, there are many stories in which the secondary characters are at least as good – if not better – than the protagonist. Let’s look at a few, shall we?
1. Hermione Granger, Harry Potter
As everyone’s favorite witch, Hermione would have made a perfect main character for Harry Potter books.* First, as someone born of Muggle parents, she would have been truly set apart from the wizarding world. This is more compelling than Harry’s backstory, which ensures that he’s practically worshiped by everyone except for those who are super duper jerks.
Second, Hermione actually works for her magic. She’s incredibly studious, literally bending time so she can attend more classes. If knowledge really is power, as the Potter books suggest, Hermione should be the strongest witch of all time. Those of us in the US of A always talk about valuing a hard day’s work and people who build themselves up from nothing. That’s Hermione in a nutshell. The only thing Harry really works at is Quidditch, yet he’s somehow good at everything wizardly. Because she devours every bit of knowledge she can find, making Hermione the protagonist would have been a great way to sneak in more worldbuilding. She could provide the answer to a lot of fan questions, like just how many magic schools are there?
Third, Voldemort has much more organic antagonism with Hermione. Voldemort and his Death Eaters are the wizard equivalent of white supremacists. They hate other people for the sin of being different. Instead of skin color, their hatred is focused on the ‘purity’ of a wizard’s blood.
Naturally, both of Harry’s parents were magical. Even though he’s technically a half-blood,* he’s not really on the Death Eaters’ hit list. This is like having a story about fighting the KKK, and making your main character white. Voldemort and his followers have no reason to hate Harry except for this prophecy, which is both suspiciously convenient and self fulfilling.
Hermione, on the other hand, is Muggle-born. She would be right in Voldemort’s crosshairs. There’s some of this in the books, but it would have been better with more screentime.
Also, with Hermione as the main character, maybe there would have been a more satisfying resolution with her parents than “I put an amnesia spell on them.” Or a more satisfying note in the epilogue than “She had babies.”
2. Tanya, Snowpiercer
Snowpiercer is a strange movie to explain for those who haven’t seen it. For now, let’s say its an absurdist, post-apocalyptic movie set on a world-spanning, never-stopping train. Yeah, that about covers it. The story focuses on how those at the front of the train live the good life while those in the back must get by with little more than the barest essentials – and sometimes not even that. Things really heat up when the train’s leaders take away children from the back of the train without explanation.
From there, Snowpiercer goes on an absolutely insane journey that shows it couldn’t care less about film conventions. Dramatic action scenes are interrupted by pointless fish gutting. Mortal enemies stop fighting to wish each other happy new year. No rule is sacred, except that the main character is the usual chiseled white dude with no personality. Seriously, it’s difficult to understand why they made this guy so boring, especially when there’s a much more interesting main character in the form of Tanya.
Tanya is everything the main character isn’t: feisty, passionate, and truly motivated. It’s her child that’s been taken, and she needs to get him back. The actual main character’s motivation is… lacking, at best. His reasons for leading the lower class passengers in a revolt aren’t revealed until the end, and they aren’t very relevant. Tanya, on the other hand, has a driving need we can all identify with: keeping her son and the other children safe. Plus, she’s a total badass. We get to see her fight a few times, and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her.
Tanya is also more entertaining than the real main character. He’s mopy and reserved like he came out of a Nolan Batman film. Tanya is energetic and full of life. She cracks jokes. She gets angry. She has a full range of emotions.
Further, Snowpiercer clearly takes pride in its diverse casting. The train’s passengers are from all over the world, literally the last remnants of humanity. Yet, the main character is inexplicably a white man.
3. Helena Cain, Battlestar Galactica
At first glance, Admiral Cain is a strange choice for this list. After all, she’s a villain. Wouldn’t any story told about her be depressing? But Cain wasn’t always the way she appears on BSG. We learn from the dialogue of other characters that before the Cylon invasion, she was an up and coming officer, the youngest ever to make Rear Admiral. She impressed the high command and inspired loyalty in her crew.
How did she go from that to someone who thinks civilian lives are a mere drain on resources? We don’t know for certain, but the implication given is that Cain is a dark reflection of Adama. They have similar traits, from an extreme military devotion to a shared love of antiques. Right after the Cylon attack, Adama also wanted to leave the civilians behind so he could attack the enemy. He was convinced not to by characters like President Roslyn. Cain had no voice of reason to rein her in. Seeing her go down this dark path would be a fascinating story.
Those in the know might point to the TV movie Battlestar: Razor as being exactly what I’m asking for, except that it isn’t. While it is a prequel about what happened to Cain’s ship before it met up with Galactica, it’s not actually about Cain. Instead, they introduce a new character named Shaw to take up most of the film. Then they kill Shaw off at the end, just to make sure nothing carries over into the series. Any screen time not spent on Shaw goes to Apollo and some flashbacks Adama is having about the first Cylon war. We get no new insight into Cain and why she does the things she does.
Another option for Cain would have been to let her live a bit longer as a recurring antagonist. One of the problems with later BSG was that none of the Cylons could match Adama’s screen presence. No matter how great their advantage, it was difficult to believe they were a real threat to him. Cain was a worthy adversary, partly because she and Adama were similar in so many ways.
4. Ro Laren, The Next Generation
Hang on, how did Michelle Forbes get on this list twice? She must really like playing guest stars. Ro Laren showed up in TNG’s season 5 to shake things up. The main cast had gotten entirely too comfortable with each other, and Ro provided some much needed friction. She had the kind of troubled backstory we hadn’t seen since the death of Tasha Yar, and she was pragmatic to the point of being ruthless. She didn’t get along with everyone else in the crew, which was a breath of fresh air.
Ro stood out from the rest of the TNG cast. She was abrasive and flawed while they were friendly* and perfect. Unlike her shipmates, she had a less than glowing view of the Federation. She seemed like a character from Deep Space Nine, which might explain why she was originally tapped to be that show’s first officer before Forbes decided she was done with Star Trek.
However, it’s not the story of Ro on DS9 that I’d like to see. If that had happened, we’d never have gotten the amazing Colonel Kira. Instead, let’s focus on Ro’s last appearance in TNG, the episode Preemptive Strike. In this episode, Ro is sent to infiltrate a group called the Maqui. These Maqui are either freedom fighters against Cardassian tyranny, or anti-Cardassian terrorists, depending on who you ask. Either way, the Federation has decided they need to be taken down.
In a great twist, Ro becomes sympathetic to the Maqui’s cause. This makes perfect sense, considering her own troubled history with the Cardassians. At the end, Ro turns against the other characters and joins the Maqui for real, and that’s the last we see of her. However, that wasn’t the end of the Maqui. Their story continued into Deep Space Nine, where they became a political thorn in the Federation’s side. That is, until they were all but wiped out in a surprise attack by the Dominion.
Through all that, we never found out what happened to Ro.* Is she in prison somewhere? Was she killed in a blaze of glory? As a former Starfleet tactical officer, she would have been of enormous value to the Maqui.
As a violent insurgency made up of Federation citizens, the Maqui presented a new opportunity for the Star Trek universe. None of the existing Star Trek shows have really explored asymmetrical warfare and all the nastiness it entails. Ro would have been the perfect main character for such a story. She had enough ruthlessness to get the job done and enough morality to be conflicted about it. If Star Trek is serious about taking on relevant issues of the day, then this would be a good place to start.
5. Sanya, The Dresden Files
In addition to being a man with no last name, Sanya is a Knight of the Cross, someone chosen to wield one of the three holy swords. These swords, made with nails from the true cross, are extremely powerful Christian artifacts in Jim Butcher’s universe. They are handed out by angels to those who are deemed worthy.
So, what makes Sanya any more interesting than the countless other paladin-type protagonists with blessed swords? It turns out that he’s an atheist. An atheist with a holy weapon handed to him by a literal angel. Huh.
That sounds like a contradiction in terms, right? Actually, it speaks to an idea that’s almost universally ignored in modern fantasy stories. What does the existence of all these supernatural and godly beings mean for our religious beliefs? Should all the characters who know about the supernatural be bowing down in worship of Odin Allfather?
Sanya’s explanation, communicated through dialogue to Dresden, is fascinating. He acknowledges the existence of a being that calls itself God, he understands that it has great power and at least seems to be benevolent, but he doesn’t worship it. In Sanya’s eyes, divinity is a man-made concept. After all, his sword gives him incredible power, but he doesn’t expect adoration for it.
This duality is the perfect base for a protagonist: someone who utilizes the power given to him in a way different than anyone else. Where Dresden is always being tempted by some supernatural seductress or another, Sanya’s struggle would be with his humanist conviction that having great power does not make one superior. Perhaps he might eventually end up in conflict with the angel who first gave him the sword. Maybe he’d find himself expecting a greater level of gratitude and devotion from those he helps. There are countless possibilities. Also, he fights with a saber in one hand and an AK-47 in the other. That’s just plain cool.
That’s what sets the characters on this list apart from the protagonists of their stories; all of them have their own unique issues or ways of approaching the world. It’s all too common for our heroes to be cut from the same generic cloth. Only the secondary characters are allowed to express variety. It’s also no coincidence that four entries are female and two are people of color.* Even now, white and male are considered the default. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way! Characters who don’t fit the mold are waiting in the wings for their chance to shine, and we just need more stories that make use of them.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.