Stories tell us which characters will be important in all manner of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as whose viewpoint is narrating the story. Barring that, you can usually tell by how much description a character has or whether they’re on the elite team assembled to save the world. But sometimes a story gives us all the signals that a character will be important, and they just aren’t. Instead, other characters overshadow them, disappointing audiences who wanted to see them shine. Let’s look at how and why this happens.
1. Brawne Lamia: Hyperion
This novel has six main characters on a journey to the planet Hyperion, where they’ll seek out a creature called the Shrike and maybe get a wish or maybe get murdered. But instead of getting on with that plot, each of the six takes a few chapters to provide their backstory so we’ll know what made them want to go to Hyperion in the first place.
This brings us to Brawne Lamia, the fifth to tell her story and the group’s only woman. She’s a private detective, and her journey begins when an AI named Johnny hires her to find out who murdered him. In this context, “murdered” means that Johnny’s vat-grown human body was destroyed, which made him lose about a week’s worth of memories. He also grew a new body at some point, which is important so Brawne and Johnny can fall in love.*
Some detectiving follows, as Brawne tries to solve the case while also having major feelings for her client. It’s a story most noir fans will find familiar, with Brawne meeting informants in shady bars while also discovering that this seemingly simple case is much bigger than she thought. It is a nice change of pace to go through these tropes with a female protagonist, as even modern noir stories heavily favor male heroes, but that subversion unfortunately doesn’t last.
Eventually, Brawne uncovers that before his murder, Johnny wanted to stop being an AI and live entirely within his human body. The other AIs didn’t want that, for some reason, so he made travel plans for Hyperion, which is outside the other AIs’ area of influence.* Apparently he only came up with these plans in the last week, since his quasi-murder erased them all. With this new information in hand, Johnny decides to follow the plan: become human and hang out on Hyperion where the AIs can’t bother him.
At this point, Brawne is already shrinking in importance compared to the other five main characters. Each of them has a personal motivation for the trip to Hyperion, while Brawne is only tagging along as a plus-one. Then AI agents kill Johnny, and it briefly seems like Brawne has no reason to make the trip at all.
BUT WAIT: Johnny’s not entirely dead, as he previously uploaded his memories into Brawne’s brain. This process is described as analogous to impregnation, so now it seems like Brawne’s entire purpose on the trip to Hyperion is to be a vehicle for another character. The memory upload was also done through a cyber implant that Brawne didn’t consent to having, so that’s pretty gross. To top it all off, Brawne is also pregnant by Johnny the conventional way,* which strengthens the impression that Brawne isn’t important in her own right.
With a few alterations, this could have been a story about Brawne’s quest to save her lover, similar to another character’s quest to save his daughter, but that isn’t how Hyperion presents it. Instead, Brawne’s entire presence is so we can be introduced to a different, much more important character.*
2. America Chavez: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
It’s rarely a good sign when one of a movie’s two main characters is barely in the trailer.* Multiverse of Madness both introduces America Chavez and has a plot that hinges on her portal-generating powers, so you’d expect her to be nearly as important as Doctor Strange himself. You would be wrong, and also possibly not paying attention, considering the kind of list this is.
It’s true that America is present for most of the movie. She shows up near the beginning, meets Strange, and sticks with him until the big finale, minus a short detour where Strange has a musical battle with himself. The problem is that almost nothing in this movie is actually about America.
She contributes almost nothing to the plot, as her portal powers are entirely out of her control. The characters claim that America’s powers activate when she’s scared, but even that doesn’t hold up. She’s scared throughout the film, but her powers only activate when the filmmakers want them to. Funny how that works. Her other supposed skill is that she knows how to survive in different universes, but that’s quickly shown to be false as well. The one time she tries to demonstrate her skills, she gets herself and Strange in trouble with a local food vendor by assuming pizza was free when it wasn’t.
Beyond her lack of any useful skills or powers, America has no dramatic material to speak of. Strange is dealing with the loss of a romantic relationship and the revelation that in other universes, he’s practically a supervillain. Meanwhile, America is scared of stuff, but only things it’s very reasonable to be scared of, so there’s not even an arc there. She feels a little guilty about accidentally whisking her moms away through a portal, but that never comes to anything, possibly to avoid making the film too gay.* The only arc even related to America is actually about Strange, as he struggles with the morality of taking America’s powers (which will also kill her) to stop the villain from getting them. How America feels about this is barely established.
In fairness, America does get a bit more content later. In fact, she’s the one who finally defeats the big bad. But even this moment shows how little interest the filmmakers have in her. America’s climactic turning point is Strange telling her to trust herself, and that’s it. Somehow, it does the trick.* After that, America can open portals at will, and she can also punch people with portals, I guess. That’s the only way I can describe her fighting style. This doesn’t show us anything new about her character. It’s just a last-minute acknowledgment that since she’s in the film so much, she should probably do something.
For most of the movie, America could easily be replaced by a malfunctioning portal gun, giving Multiverse of Madness a failing grade on its sexy interdimensional lamp test. It’s such a weak introduction that I had to double-check that America was actually a character from Marvel’s comics and not some plot device they invented just for this film. Apparently she is from the comics, where she has a startlingly wide array of powers. Maybe we’ll see some of those the next time she appears onscreen, hopefully along with a plot that actually makes her important.
3. Olga: The Northman
In this Viking revenge saga, Amleth and Olga are both enslaved in Iceland. Granted, Amleth is enslaved on purpose as part of his revenge plot, but no matter, they decide to work together on the basis of being the two hottest people in camp. Or as Olga puts it: “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds.”
So Amleth is the brawn, and Olga is the brains. Sounds like a solid partnership. The only problem is that Olga’s supposed cunning almost never manifests. Instead, we spend nearly the entire movie following Amleth as he enacts his plans for revenge. He has mysterious visions, finds a magic sword,* kills several guards in the night, and works his way into the antagonists’ trust.
Olga’s only contribution is that she makes some poison to incapacitate the guards, but it’s still as part of Amleth’s plan. So I guess he’s the brawn and the brains, but she remembered to take the Poison Proficiency feat. And honestly, it doesn’t seem like Amleth even needed the poison, since he’s so overpowered compared to the villains.
After that, Olga makes the bizarre choice to stay behind when Amleth’s cover is blown, apparently not considering that the bad guys* might wonder if Amleth’s lover helped him at all. How… cunning? In a shocking twist, the bad guys wonder that exact thing, and pretty soon Amleth has to surrender in exchange for Olga’s life. So she goes from just not helping to actively hindering Amleth’s plan. Wonderful.
Olga does rescue Amleth later, but only in the most technical sense. For some reason, the bad guys leave him completely unguarded, and he’s already been untied by a bunch of ravens anyway.* So it’s more of a pickup than a rescue. From there, Olga’s role in the plot is effectively over, other than revealing that she’s pregnant. This does motivate Amleth to go back and finish the bad guys off, but you can’t really say it has anything to do with Olga as a character.
The only cunning thing we see Olga do in the entire film is when she drives off an attempted rapist by grossing him out with her menstrual blood. That’s pretty cool, but it’s hardly the brains/brawn dynamic we were promised. Admittedly, that was always going to be a hard sell because Amleth is the main character, not Olga. It’s difficult for the main character not to be the brains of Team Good, since they need the most agency. If Olga were the one coming up with all the plans, then she’d be the main character. Personally, I’d say that would be an improvement, but they didn’t ask me.
4. Heather and Seth: Day Shift
In this blue-collar vampire-hunting movie, we have two overshadowed characters for the price of one! The first is Heather, neighbor to protagonist Bud. For most of the movie, Heather is just a background character whom Bud has exactly one interaction with. Then, near the end, she’s revealed to be a vampire! But not just any vampire – she’s an unwilling participant in the big bad’s plan and has been forced to give up critical information on Bud. What information she could possibly have on him is never said, but she’s very sorry. She’s so sorry that she wants to help Bud fight the big bad!
This is a jarring change because previously, all vampires were considered evil, with the heroes always shooting them on sight. In similar stories, there’s some explanation for why the one good vampire is an exception, but not in this movie. Not only is the worldbuilding underdone here, but Heather’s motivations are as well. Before, she was terrified of the villain, but now she’s ready for war. Ethics aside, it really doesn’t seem like Heather knows Bud well enough that she’d be eager to risk her life for him.
Our second character is Seth, the only dude on this list. Good job, buddy! He’s a union rep assigned to keep an eye on Bud for any violations of Hunter Law, and the two of them have a clear buddy-cop arc going. Bud breaks the rules whenever he likes, while Seth is a stickler for going by the book. Will they ever get along? Also, will Seth ever get over his fear of physical violence?*
Day Shift has no answers for you, as both arcs are suddenly cut short by Seth turning into a vampire. After that, he and Bud are suddenly great friends, which is super confusing. Before Seth turns, he and Bud are just starting to warm up, but they’re hardly close. It really seems like Bud would just kill the new Vampire Seth, since as far as Bud knows, all vampires are evil. They certainly aren’t good enough friends for Bud to go against years of training by letting Seth live. But let him live Bud does, and after that, Seth is largely in the background.
So we’ve established that Heather and Seth both have truncated roles in the movie, but what is overshadowing them exactly? The answer, which surprised the heck out of me, is Snoop Dogg. That’s right, Snoop Dogg is in this movie about hunting vampires! Early in the story, he’s just Bud’s old friend from the hunter union, which seems about right. But then, as the final battle looms, Snoop Dogg crashes back into the movie as a huge badass, with more screen time than anyone other than Bud himself. Snoop Dogg even gets a heroic sacrifice, which he mysteriously survives like this is some kind of superhero movie.*
I can’t read the filmmakers’ minds or anything, but it really feels like Seth and Heather’s presence was reduced to make room for more Snoop Dogg. If that’s what happened, then it’s an understandable choice, as who wouldn’t want to boost their movie’s profile with more involvement from a major celebrity? I just wish they’d scaled down the other characters’ roles to fit the time they actually had. That goes double if Snoop Dogg’s prominence was planned from the beginning.
5. The Girls: Paper Girls
If you thought the two-for-one deal was good, I’m about to double it! This time we have four entire characters getting overshadowed – the titular paper girls: Tiff, Erin, KJ, and Mac. Before you get too excited, they aren’t actually made of paper. If you can get over that disappointment, you might be interested to know that they deliver newspapers together, and more importantly, they travel around in time while an epic temporal war is waged around them.
In this show’s defense, the girls aren’t overshadowed nearly as much as the other entries on this list. When the story is just about them navigating unfamiliar time periods or grappling with high-stress situations, it’s very good. The acting is strong, and the show manages a particularly difficult feat: having main characters who are mean to each other without going over the top.
But unlike the other examples, these four are their story’s main characters, so it’s a more serious problem when they’re overshadowed. That usually happens during the time-war sections of the show, which come in two big chunks, one near the start and one near the end.
In the first time-war section, we spend the better part of two episodes with Erin’s adult time clone and some resistance guy named Larry. Adult Erin needs to pilot a giant robot for plot reasons, so Larry trains her for a while. They both have character arcs, with Adult Erin feeling like a failure and Larry struggling to make the hard choices required in war. Then they go into battle, and Adult Erin has an epic CGI fight with another robot before both she and Larry have heroic sacrifices. Where are the girls during all this? Either hanging out or hiding from the bad guys.
The second time-war section is mercifully a bit shorter but still very frustrating. The time villains attack, and once again, the adults take over the story. This time it’s a younger version of Larry and his resistance buddy Juniper, plus Adult Tiff is hanging around too. They talk about the time villain threat for most of an episode, while the actual main characters stand around with nothing to do. When the time villains attack, the girls are immediately captured, because what are a bunch of 12-year-olds going to do against a high-tech army?
The season ends as a side character gives the girls a secret mission to prevent the time war from happening. Her logic is that since Adult Tiff is the one to invent time travel, Young Tiff can convince her not to do that. But if preventing the time war is that easy, why not just go back and shoot Adult Tiff before she publishes? This side character has shot a bunch of characters in previous episodes, so we know she’s not opposed to murder!
The time war is Paper Girls’ big problem, and it’s the reason the protagonists are often overshadowed. There’s simply nothing that four preteens can credibly do to affect a high-tech military conflict, or at least, nothing the writers could think of. I’m sure it’s possible, but I would be hard-pressed to find a solution if someone handed me the script and asked for a content edit.
If the show weren’t bound by the comic it was adapted from, my recommendation would probably be to drop the war aspect entirely. Paper Girls works really well as a story about four girls being pulled between different time periods in their hometown, and we don’t need a war to justify that premise.
Characters are often overshadowed because storytellers leave them to languish. Olga could have aided her own escape from slavery, but that would have taken time away from Amleth and his many ways to brood. Brawne could have had her own motivation, but that would have competed with Johnny the Wonder-AI. There’s a reason so many of these characters are women. Authors are much more likely to realize when they’re stepping on a male character’s toes.
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