Analysis

Six Stories That Focus Too Much on Side Characters

The protagonist is a story’s most important character. They have the most interesting problems, and the conflict’s outcome depends on their actions. Whether a story has multiple protagonists or just one, they should receive the lion’s share of screen time and development.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go. But sometimes a storyteller forgets these best practices and gets enamored of a side character, piling way too much attention on someone who isn’t actually that important. This distorts the story, taking the audience’s focus away from where it belongs and likely boring them to tears in the process. Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders running free in the wild.

1. The Amber Spyglass

Cover art of the amber spyglass from the Amber Spyglass.

As the third book in a trilogy, The Amber Spyglass is the capstone to an epic conflict. What’s at stake? Why, the very fate of the multiverse! As the armies of Heaven and Lord Asriel’s* Republic clash, our heroes Lyra and Will search for a way to stop the all-important Dust from flowing out of the world entirely.

In the middle of this, the book pauses so that Dr. Mary Malone can hang out with some weird aliens for a while. And I do mean a while. She’s there long enough to get absorbed into the aliens’ culture, weave baskets with them, and learn about their mortal enemies. This goes on for quite some time before Lyra and Will finally show up to conclude the story.

So, what did Mary and her alien friends have to do with the plot? Nearly nothing. The only relevant thing that happens is when Mary makes a special instrument* that lets her see the Dust draining out of the world, which will be a problem if it continues. This information could have easily been delivered elsewhere, since the same problem is happening in literally every world of the multiverse.

Otherwise, Mary’s chapters are nothing but a distraction from the actual story, and they can be easily skipped over. Mary isn’t even a particularly important character. The only reason to include this section seems to be that the aliens she meets are really cool. They’re like a cross between an elephant and a motorcycle, and they use large seed pods as natural wheels to get around.

That’s certainly novel, but it isn’t worth spending so much time away from the plot. When a storyteller gets a neat idea like this but there isn’t room for it in the story, the idea should be put aside for later use, not shoehorned in at the plot’s expense.

2. Throne of the Crescent Moon

Raseed, Adoulla, and Zamia fighting ghouls from the cover of Throne of the Crescent Moon.

Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel opens with three main characters, which is a reasonable number of main characters for a book of this length. Each of them brings a unique perspective to the story. Adoulla is an aging ghoul hunter with untold knowledge of the occult. Raseed is young swordsman with a strong sense of duty. Finally, Zamia is an outsider with animalistic powers who just wants vengeance for her clan. Their distinct personalities allow for strong contrast – so far so good. Plus, they look great together on the cover.

But as the story goes on, we meet two of Adoulla’s friends, Dawoud and Litaz. Like Adoulla, they’re both getting too old for the adventuring life, and they have fairly similar outlooks on life, along with occult abilities. But it’s okay, Adoulla probably just needs their help for a scene or two and then they’ll be on their way… Oh, wait, no, they actually stick around for the entire book.

Neither Dawoud nor Litaz add much to the story as a whole. Dawoud has a mild disagreement with Adoulla over politics, but Adoulla and Raseed were already having that argument with more passion. Litaz briefly serves as a confidant for Zamia, but it’s not clear why Zamia needs that. If it were important, other side characters could have done the job just as well.

Otherwise, most of Litaz’s and Dawoud’s screen time is spent angsting about how they really need to leave the adventuring life and retire before old age claims them. Remember, this is also a major trait of Adoulla’s, one of the actual main characters. They have no special connection to either the supernatural or political conflict. Then, presumably to rub salt in the wound, Dawoud and Litaz go out and recruit some of their friends to be side characters, taking up even more screen time.

My assumption is that Ahmed included these characters in an attempt to make the setting feel more alive. This is understandable, as many fantasy worlds feel like they’re populated entirely by a tiny handful of main characters. A larger cast can help alleviate this feeling of emptiness. But for that tactic to work, the extra characters have to be important. They must bring something to the table that contributes to the story as a whole, like a unique perspective or connection to the plot. Otherwise, they should remain in the background like other side characters.

3. Children of Blood and Bone

Cover art of the main character's face from Children of Blood and Bone.

Like our previous entry, this book also starts out with three main characters. Unlike Throne of the Crescent Moon, Children of Blood and Bone manages to keep the focus where it belongs for most of its length. A fourth main character joins the team, but he’s a major romantic interest, so the story benefits from his presence. Other characters are given screen time appropriate to their roles, and everything seems to be going great.

Then, we hit the third act and Roën appears.* Roën immediately stands out because while the other characters are grounded and realistic, Roën’s behavior is incredibly plot-convenient.  First, he and his crew of super badass mercenaries are willing to help the protagonist based on nothing but vague promises, despite supposedly being a ruthless criminal organization. They don’t even haggle!

Second, they are so good at fighting that it becomes cartoonish. When the plot requires our heroes to capture an imperial battleship, Roën jauntily announces that he and his crew can do it in five minutes, and it will only take that long because the protagonist insists they not kill anyone. After that kind of feat, it seems like Roën should take care of the main villain no problem, but for some reason he doesn’t. This disparity is never explained.

Roën even serves as a confidant the protagonist can talk to about her trauma, because he’s conveniently had similar experiences. This is especially jarring because the protag barely knows him, but she chooses him to talk to instead of a character that’s been with her since the beginning. Instead of focusing on characters we’ve grown to care about, the third act is mostly a showcase for how awesome Roën is.

The reason for this seems to be that Roën is the emergency backup love interest, since the main love interest has joined team evil by this point. Roën and the protag don’t actually get together in this book, but there’s a lot of flirty description, and in his first appearance, Roën makes the original love interest jealous. This romance would have worked a lot better if Roën were introduced in the sequel, where he’d have time to develop naturally instead of being given a disproportionate amount of screen time.

4. Sorcerer Royal

Cover art from the True Queen, showing a serpent flicking its tongue toward a woman in a bottle.

In this entry, we’re getting a two-for-one deal. Not only do both books in the Sorcerer Royal series focus too much on a side character, but it’s actually the same side character: Prunella. In book one, protagonist Zacharias is trying to save English magic while also fighting back against the bigotry so common among English magicians. Meanwhile, Prunella is trying to get married. These plots are barely connected, and Prunella’s scenes are an irritating distraction from Zacharias’s compelling story.

In book two, Muna is our new main character from the southeast Asian island of Janda Baik. She needs to rescue her sister from the fairy court while also figuring out how to break a curse laid upon both of them. Sounds like plenty of content to drive the plot, right? But hold on, Prunella is also here. This time she’s the one in charge of saving English magic while also fighting back against the bigotry so common among English magicians.*

These plot lines have a little more in common than the arcs in the first book did, since they both deal with the fairy court, but it’s not enough to keep the book focused. Muna has no reason to care what happens to English magic, except for possibly hoping that it’s destroyed before England colonizes her homeland, but this is never brought up. Meanwhile, Prunella has bigger problems than trying to find Muna’s lost sister, and she doesn’t even know about the curse.

The two plots are given nearly equal focus, and they aren’t connected until close to the end, which is far too late. Prunella’s conflict actually has higher stakes, but the book starts with Muna and spends several chapters getting us invested in her, so Muna is clearly supposed to be the main character.

This dynamic splits the book down the middle. Readers who accept the early chapters’ premise that Muna is the main character will be annoyed that so much time is spent on a plot with no relation to her. Meanwhile, readers who are more invested in English magic from the previous book will be frustrated that the story keeps veering away from Prunella’s plot to focus on a newcomer.

It’s not entirely clear why Prunella shows up as an overdeveloped side character not once, but twice. She doesn’t seem to be part of the worldbuilding, nor does she have an obvious relation to the actual main character.* For my money, she’s a favorite of the author’s, who finds reasons to include Prunella in stories she isn’t a part of.

5. A Dance With Dragons

Cover art from A Dance With Dragons showing a shield with a dragon emblem.

As a series, A Song of Ice and Fire has more characters than it knows what to do with, and that number has only increased with each book, despite the famously high death rate. Some characters have an appropriate amount of screen time, while others have too much or too little. Today, we’re going to focus on just one: Quentyn Martell.

Quentyn is something unusual: a brand-new point-of-view character introduced in the fifth book. Usually, we at least meet new POV characters before going inside their heads, but our first look at Quentyn is through his own eyes. He’s a Dornish prince who goes on a long, looooooong journey to reach Queen Daenerys and offer her an alliance.

What does this journey have to do with the rest of the story? Absolutely nothing. At most it shows us some of the fallout of Daenerys’s conquests, which we could have learned from several other characters. Despite that, we get multiple chapters of Quentyn and his friends traveling. There’s drama and conflict, to be sure – several of the friends die – but it’s hard to care about that because Quentyn is using up screen time that could have been spent on characters we were already invested in.

When Quentyn finally reaches Daenerys’s court, she brushes him off because she has bigger concerns on her mind. Nevertheless, he sticks around, which is actually a great summation of Quentyn: underfoot while the important characters try to take care of business.

Finally, Quentyn does something that presumably matters: he sets two of Daenerys’s dragons free to rampage as they please. I say “presumably” because the book ends shortly afterward, so we don’t see the outcome of his actions. It’s also worth noting, though, that breaking the dragons out didn’t require adding a new character, as the Game of Thrones TV show proved.

And then Quentyn dies. So not only was he an annoying distraction in this book, but he doesn’t even have the potential to grow later. At best, his death may cause some political fallout between Daenerys and House Martell, but that hardly required an entire POV character to accomplish.

So why does this character exist? Regular series bloat doesn’t explain it. This isn’t a background character the author got too attached to; he’s brand new. This is highly speculative, but I suspect Martin realized his readers were onto the fact that he hasn’t killed a POV character since Ned Stark,* so he invented Quentyn to keep readers guessing. But there’s a catch to character death: if we don’t care about the character, we don’t care about the death.

6. Good Omens

Crowley and Aziraphel looking at each other from Good Omens.

The Good Omens TV show is nearly a shot-for-page adaptation of the book. By far the most notable change is that the already prominent characters of Crowley and Aziraphale are even more prominent this time around, including a 30-minute montage of their adventures through history that isn’t in the book at all. The entire show revolves around them, and they’re featured heavily in the marketing.

There’s only one problem here: Aziraphale and Crowley aren’t the main characters in the book.* Adam is the main character. He’s the Antichrist, and on his actions rests the fate of the world. His conflict is the most important, since it’s literally Armageddon. But hey, maybe Crowley and Aziraphale are actually part of that plot. They could be the Legolas and Gimli to Adam’s Frodo.

They are not. After Crowley accidentally helps give baby Adam to the wrong set of parents,* nothing he and Aziraphale do has any significant effect on Adam’s plot. They don’t keep Heaven and Hell from finding him, since Heaven and Hell aren’t looking, and they don’t know where he is anyway. They don’t help Adam reject evil; he does that on his own after his friends scold him. They don’t help him defeat the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse; Adam’s friends do that. They don’t even stop humanity from nuking itself; a witch and her quasi-boyfriend do that.*

The closest Aziraphale and Crowley come to affecting the main plot is that they give Adam a quick pep-talk before he sends Satan packing, but it’s not at all clear how much difference that made. So much screen time is devoted to Aziraphale and Crowley that we barely know Adam, even though the entire plot hinges on his personality. There’s also technically a storyline involving the witch and her quasi-boyfriend, but it’s so atrophied that I can barely remember what happens in it.

Beyond that, it’s just disappointing to see Crowley and Aziraphale show up at the climax and then contribute nothing. We’ve spent a long time getting to know these characters, so we want them to matter! This overfocus on two side characters ends up hurting both them and the rest of the story at the same time.

It’s pretty obvious why Aziraphale and Crowley are so heavily featured: they’re by far the best characters. It’s automatically compelling to watch a demon and an angel become friends in defiance of their respective sides. Plus, there’s the obvious romantic chemistry, even if the show took the coward’s way out by insisting they’re best friends instead of romantic partners.* Add in the two extremely talented actors to play them, and you have an irresistible combination.

Focusing on Crowley and Aziraphale could have been fine if they’d been willing to revise the story so the characters’ plot importance matched their screen presence. The story we got instead is still fun, but not as satisfying as it should be.


As long as there are side characters, there will be storytellers who focus on them too much. Sometimes this is a sign that a side character should actually be the protagonist, and sometimes it just means the storyteller got bored with their main character. Whatever the reason, spending too much time on a character who isn’t important will always hurt the story. When a character has more screen time than their role merits, either that screen time or their role must change.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I’ve been hearing a lot of bad things about the Good Omens TV show the last couple of days – which is sad, because I really was looking forward to eventually seeing it.

    You’re right, though, that Aziraphael and Crowley, despite being fun characters, are not really in the thick of things. Adam is the main character, because it’s ultimately his story of not being angel or demon, not from heaven or hell, but human – something which, admittedly, happens because he’s not under the influence of any side, with Aziraphael and Crowley thinking another child is Adam and influencing that child’s life instead.

    I felt that the witch and her witchfinder boyfriend (Anathema and I’ve forgotten that guy’s name, didn’t it start with N?) had a slowly growing relationship in the book, so I’m sad to hear that didn’t carry over.

    The novel already has a large number of main characters, but books can juggle that well (especially with pros like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (may the Clack forever carry his name) at the wheel). It might have been necessary to reduce Crowley’s and Aziraphael’s place in the story, actually – but then, the series banks a lot of Tenant and Sheen as big names…

    • Chris Winkle

      I think it’s worth watching despite its problems. There are many enjoyable scenes, and Aziraphael and Crowley really are delightful. It’s just disappointing that Neil Gaiman didn’t update the plot to make their actions matter more, and that instead of standing up to homophobes, their relationship was kept just barely within plausible deniability.

      • 3Comrades

        I feel very differently. Their actions were never supposed to be important, the actual end of armeggeddon was anti-climatic. That was the point. From the riders being dissapointed they are riding a few miles and sneaking in rather than going guns blazing. That the stand-off between heaven and hell is just frustrated yelling, and that all the wars ended because a man was born incompetant. It was never about the action. I mean they even talk about how terrible it would have been if they were more involved, that was the point. Not an action book/series, but a series of comical/dramatic situations.

        In fact Aziraphale convincing Gabriel and beelzebub that the end of the world is not the “ineffable plan” is the key point and end of the main plot point. So I can’t understand how they weren’t vital if you don’t look at it as an ultimate battle that doesn’t happen.

        On the other point, how is having friends be purely platonic homophobic? I understand the book has fans that ship them, hell I’ve shipped them for 12 years but fandoms can’t be what we base these things on. The book made it very clear they were mostly non-sexual beings, and being asexual/aromantic isn’t homophobic last time I checked.

        I want more shows and books with gay characters, but I deeply worry about calling stories about friendship homophobic. The implication that deep bonds are the arena of romance only hurts stories as a whole. I needed stories about close friends as a kid, and I needed gay stories as a teen. I don’t think the inclusion of one should mean the eradication of the other.

        • Cay Reet

          I still feel that the main plot is Adam’s, but I fully agree with you on the friendship angle. The fact alone that a demon and an angel are friends and rather form their own side than side with their fractions speaks of a deep friendship which can only develop over a long time. But then, they’ve been deployed to earth for six thousand years, so there’s time. With the demons and angels in the story, I dare say they are aromantic and asexual by nature and I don’t see a reason to change that (for angels, that’s the religious default – and Crowley is a fallen angel, hence he has wings). I think it’s almost as bad to call a deep friendship between two men ‘homophobic’ by the author than to demand the earsure of homosexual relationships in media. Men can share a deep friendship which might share fringes with a romantic/erotic relationship, such as a a very deep understanding, without that being ‘homophobic’ or ‘queerbaiting’ per se. That is what I see in Aziraphael and Crowley and always have.

    • Maria

      The series felt like a book-sing-along to me, with all the good and the bad that comes out of it. And, neh, Anathema and Newt pretty much go from complete strangers to lovers in about half an hour in the book as well. If you liked the book you will proooobably at least enjoy the series – the actors are good, the show was made with dedication and atention to detail and it retains some of the magic. But I read the book when I was an impressionable teenager and I fear no film can compete with how magic that felt.

  2. Gray-Hand

    My memory from reading a good Omens is that Crowley and Aziraphale are most definitely the main characters. It’s a bit of an ensemble cast, but those two are the main guys.

    I last read the story in the 90’s and the only names I remember are theirs and Adam – and I only remember Adam because the choosing of his name takes up several paragraphs.

    You could perhaps make an argument that the story should have had another character as the main character, but that would be a different story. If the show had elevated another character to be the lead, that would not be true to the novel.

  3. N

    Excellent point on the relative screentime and importance, especially in Good Omens. However, I’m afraid I may have to disagree with you on the relationship between Crowley and Aziraphale. Even in the book it’s clear that Aziraphale is “sexless unless he chooses otherwise” iirc. The acting choices in the show did look, to me, like two asexual characters deeply in love? Sure, Crowley does refer to Aziraphale as his “best friend”, but he also consistently refers to him in public as “angel”. There is a lot of other apparently-deliberate subtext too, like the Garden of Eden flashback where Aziraphale shelters Crowley with his wing in the same moment that (the first man) Adam grabs Eve’s hand; the fact that Aziraphale goes to a “discreet gentlemen’s club” (Seamstresses’ Guild, anyone?) to learn the gavotte (which developed from a “peasant’s kissing dance”); the line “You go too fast for me”. It’s not the same as two men kissing on screen, but it still came off (to me) as being based on deeper love than the straight couples.

  4. Geneviève Hébert-Jodoin

    Frankly, the criticism of Good Omens seems highly misplaced at best and at worse…well, considerably worse than that.

    Perhaps yes, if it had been your story to tell you would have told it from Adam’s perspective. But it wasn’t your story to tell, and the story that Gaiman and Pratchett set out to write most certainly chose Aziraphale and Crowley as its main character. That is readily apparent on ev. To try to overwrite that because of who you felt would have had the more compelling story isn’t criticizing the story that exist ; it’s demanding an entirely different story.

    In relation to that, I’m getting *really* tired of the rampant aroace erasure that features in flinging accusations of queerbaiting at any platonic love and chemistry between same (apparent) gender characters. Especially when dealing with a character who is explicitly stated in the novel to *not* be gay, and to some degree *actually implied* to be asexual.

    We exist, we’re queer too, and our queerplatonic relationships are valid. It would be really nice if people would stop treating what scraps of representation (which is a freaking *fraction* of actual LG representation!) we get as an offense against Queers.

  5. Tina

    Yyyyeaaahhh I do see your point about Good Omens. I’m willing to give it a little more credit though, for two reasons.

    (SPOILERS)

    1. The show is, after all, a comedy, and Aziraphale lampshades the problem at the end with his line about “just imagine how awful it might have been if we’d been at all competent.” While it’s still somewhat narratively frustrating to watch these two supernatural entities bumble around during the climax, it’s at least consistent with their characterization as lovable idiots who just want everything to go back to normal so they can eat crepes together.

    2. Via the added scenes about Crowley and Aziraphale (the historical montage, the body-swap plot), the two are essentially given their own story that is separate from the armageddon one. Two beings that are supposed to be enemies gradually realize they like each other more than they like their “higher offices,” so they betray those offices in order to stay together. Then to escape retribution, they perform an act of intimacy and trust (the body swap). Armageddon is just the catalyst for that story. And, to its credit, the show really did commit to prioritizing that story right to the end: what’s the real climax of episode six? It’s not Adam defeating Satan. It can’t be, because, as mentioned, that has almost nothing to do with Crowley and Aziraphale. So, Adam defeats Satan in like the first 20 minutes of the episode. It’s the body swap sequence that gets all the dramatic buildup, the music, the close-ups of characters’ eyes. We do get a satisfying ending for those two. It’s just not when they stop the end of the world.

    With that said, good LORD I wish they’d had more to do with stopping the end of the world. That scene where Crowley was pleading with an unresponsive God not to test humanity to destruction? One of the most compelling scenes in the whole series. The fact that the sword Aziraphale gave away becomes humanity’s weapon against the horsemen of the apocalypse? That’s some stellar writing. But neither of those things are really focused on or fleshed out because they’re not significant to the actual story.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just to be clear I enjoyed Good Omens too, it’s a fine show! It’s on this list not because I hate it, but because it makes a mistake that other stories might not be able to overcome so easily, since not everyone can get David Tenant and Michael Sheen to play their stars.

  6. Ally

    I just want to mention the Green Rider series by Kristen Britain here.
    Book one – Excellent. One character, focused, gripping, invested. Was and still is one of my fav books.
    Second – More POV. Expands views of the world. Good.
    Third – Yet more POV characters… Why?
    And each book get’s worse. Who am I supposed to care about anymore?
    **SPOILER**
    **
    One book creates a future timeline, introduces heaps of characters, makes you invested in the new world, only to throw the protag back to her time so she can change the future… But… WHY??
    Apparently a new book came out and but I can’t see the point in continuing to read the series anymore.

  7. EC Spurlock

    Actually I would posit that Good Omens (the book, I have not seen the adaptation) technically has NO protagonist. Adam is not the protagonist, he is the MacGuffin, the bomb that Aziraphale and Crowley have to disarm — except that he essentially disarms himself. Meanwhile Aziraphale and Crowley are the Viewpoint Characters, acting on the plot in small ways but mainly showing the reader what the plot was supposed to be and how it has gone off the rails. They are each more concerned about how events affect themselves rather than what will happen to the rest of the world. It’s a very British conceit and I’m not sure an American audience accustomed to a very different writing style is quite able to capture it.

  8. Dinwar

    The inclusion of “Good Omens” is simply nonsense. (Fair warning: Spoilers below.)

    The point of the story wasn’t Armageddon; it was the relationship between the angel and demon, and their relationships with their higher (lower?) authorities. The conflict was internal conflict–the realization that these two beings loved each other, despite being on opposite sides of the greatest war in that universe. Armageddon was simply the setting–Adam is as much a character for most of the story as any random mountain or building. The action, the story, the PLOT was the relationship between the demon and the angel. The climax isn’t preventing Armageddon, it’s when Azraphel defies Heaven; the rest is wrapping up loose ends. Exciting and fun, sure, but the story would have had a satisfactory ending no matter what happened after Azraphel returned to Earth. The conflict had been resolved; the angel and demon came to terms with their love for each other. (I would say, in fact, that that’s the theme that ties all 3 plots together, and the way Armageddon is averted.)

    Saying that Crowely and Azraphel are side-characters is like saying Horatio Hornblower is a side character. After all, the “real” story is the defeat of Napoleon, right? So a minor frigate captain must necessarily be a side character. Is the captain in “Saving Private Ryan” a side character, since the real conflict is the battles they slog through? “Gone With The Wind” comes to mind as well. There is a long history of literature using grand-scale conflicts as a setting for very personal stories; just because a conflict has higher stakes doesn’t mean it needs to be central.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.