Analysis

Five Secondary Characters Who Deserve Their Own Stories

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

Hermione-Granger

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

Tanya 2

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

cane 2

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

Ro 2

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

deathmasks-big Sanya (unillustrated) first shows up in Death Masks.

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.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Sionnachuighiim

    IIRC Harry was an able wizard, not outstanding – and the only thing he excelled at was being blessed/cursed with insane luck and DAtDA. This latter can be attributed to his constantly being hounded by the setting’s antichrist, and the former to Main Characteritis combined with a hearty dose of Pawn of Fate tropes.

  2. Karalora

    Yeah Sanya! He’s one of my favorite characters in that series, not least because his atheism means that he follows his path not because of any externally imposed duty but simply because it is the right thing to do. People are victimized by evil, he can protect them, so he does. God doesn’t enter into it.

    • SunlessNick

      It also says good things about the god/being in question that *those* are the qualities it wants in its paladins.

  3. Thales

    Unfortunately, Hermione is basically the author projecting her younger self into the story — so while her backstory is perhaps more interesting and realistic, making her a supporting character averts the Mary Sue trap. Had Rowling actually made her the titular protagonist, the series would have floundered.

    • Aryllia

      Or Rowling could have developed Hermione further and worked away the Mary Sue traits, letting her grow out of the author avatar role. Putting her as a supporting character saved Rowling a lot of the hard work it would have taken to let Hermione grow into a more autonomous character, but it’s not like it would have been an impossible feat.

      What might have been more difficult would be overcoming the mid-90s disproportionate favouritism towards male heroes as “universal” and female heroes as “for girls”, which would have effectively halved the potential market for the books.

      • Cay Reet

        Although the Simpson equivalent of Harry Potter actually features a female lead.

        Yes, Hermione could have been a very interesting main character for the stories, provided she had been worked over well and turned from a Mary Sue into a more well-rounded character.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It’s weird to me that people are so concerned that Hermione might be over-glorified if she were the protagonist when Harry is perhaps the most over-glorified protagonists that there ever was.

        • Sophie The Jedi Knight

          I fully agree. Hermione is the genius-foil trope – the friend who has all the answers but isn’t the protagonist because REASONS. It’s almost as if the author didn’t want the protagonist to be too smart. In the Legend trilogy (<3<3<3), protagonist June Iparis is a prodigy, and aced her Trial (think SAT), so she can solve problems and all without needing much outside help, except from Day, who helps her in the more physical work.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, I sometimes have the impression Hermione could solve the problems much faster, if she weren’t always held back.

            It’s a great strategy to make your main lead a very intelligent person and then have her or him rely on someone else for the more physical tasks (I haven’t read the Legend trilogy, so I can’t comment on it). That allows for interesting relationships, no matter whether they’re mostly work-related, friendship, or romantic.

  4. David MacDowell Blue

    I adore Hermione, but think she would have made a dreadful protagonist. She’s too much of a nag, for one thing, a know-it-all who tends to freeze up when action is required, and has a real problem with “thinking outside the box.” All those things soften/change over time, to be sure. But she is far better placed as one of the Trinity of characters who make up the heart of the book series. She is an “Head” (expert) who rounds out the “Heart” (emotional glue) and the “Hand” (doer, decider, fighter, etc.). She is the Spock to Harry Potter’s Kirk and Ron’s Bones.

    But let me say the fact current TREK couldn’t figure out a way to use the utterly brilliant character of Ro Laran is literally what I complain about with the entire franchise! A show with her as a captain of her own ship, or maybe first officer, would have the potential for drama ultimately rarely touched upon in TNG, DS9, VOY or ENT.

    • Cay Reet

      Actually, her shortcomings as a hero would have made for an interesting change thoughout the series, teaching her to think outside the box, not to stick to rules that much, not to freeze in dangerous situations. She would have needed a different kind of growing, but she could have been the lead as well.

  5. MentalPagan

    I would love to know more about Sanya’s story, especially considering some of the things we learn about him and the Denarians in later books.

  6. Ipomoea

    “Ro Laren is a main character in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine relaunch novels that have been published since 2001. The novels show that Ro survived the Dominion’s extermination of the Maquis and joined with a few other Maquis survivors to fight their own war effort against the Dominion. After the Dominion War, Ro returned to Bajor and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Bajoran militia, replacing Odo as Chief of Security on DS9 and eventually starting a relationship with Quark. Initially Starfleet wanted her arrested, but behind the scenes Captain Picard quietly urged Starfleet to reconsider their decision. When Bajor joined the Federation, Ro considered leaving the station with Quark, but her old uniform was sent to her by Picard as encouragement to remain on the station. Ro remained with the militia as it was absorbed into Starfleet and was given a Starfleet commission at the rank of Lieutenant. As of the novel Zero Sum Game (set in 2382), Ro is the commanding officer of Deep Space 9 and a Starfleet Captain. After the destruction of the original station in the Star Trek: Typhon Pact novels Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn, Captain Ro takes command of the new station built in its place, starting in Revelation and Dust.”

    – Memory Alpha

  7. Inari

    If you think that Hermione left her parents with no memory of her, or that all she did was ‘have babies’ post war then you’re very wrong. She went to Australia and reversed the spell on her parents for one. Rowling told us that fact via Pottermore. After the war Hermione went back to Hogwarts to do her 7th year and get her N.E.W.Ts and then went to work at the Ministry, first in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, where she continued her work with S.P.E.W and helped others start to treat non-humans better. After that she moved to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement where she worked her way to the Deputy Head of the Department, and in that role she helped Shacklebolt to reform the laws that were biased in favor of the Pure-bloods. Again, this is cannon because Rowling published it via Pottermore. I think Hermione is brilliant but it wouldn’t be the Harry Potter series if she was the protagonist, it would be the Hermione Granger series and that doesn’t have that good of a ring to it.

  8. AlgaeNymph

    If you want to see Hermione get the story she deserves, check out The Arithmancer/Lady Archimedes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/FanFic/TheArithmancer

  9. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    A very interesting and well laid out list.

  10. Sam Beringer

    I know this is late, but I feel some things are worth adding to Sanya. Mainly his backstory.

    See, the main enemies of the Knights are the Denarians, fallen angels possessing the thirty pieces of silver used to bribe Judas into betraying Jesus and their hosts. While some like Ursiel simply overpower their hosts’ minds and use them as mere skinsuits, others like Anduriel or Lasciel prefer to work in tandem with their hosts.

    Why do I bring this up? Because Sanya used to be a Denarian. He was tempted to pick up one of the coins due to trouble in his life (some of it was relating to him being a black man in Russia), but was convinced to give it up by Shiro, another Knight. And later he received Esperachius and became a Knight himself.

    So you have a character not only working to do good in the world despite not believing in a higher power, but who knows too well what the other side is capable of. And knows how the world turning on you for what you are — whether you’re black, gay, Muslim, transgender, or mentally ill — can push you down a dark path.

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