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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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