Think Aloud explores book-related discussions encompassing reading, writing, blogging, and perhaps newsworthy content. The focus is to push the boundaries, stretch the mind, and encourage dialogue within this community. Let’s all think out loud.
Are Protagonists Too
A supporting character is their own protagonist but we rarely see them as such.
I’mma just put it out there: Harry Potter would have been good as dead if not for everyone around him. But he isn’t the only main character with an ensemble following who would run into spears for their beloved hero.
The problem with supporting characters is that they aren’t always living as their own protagonist. It’s as though they’re penned to be guided by a narrative purpose to “protect their king”—end of story—where death is passable if it keeps the narrator alive. And I’m not speaking to the uncontrollable (“freak”) accidents; those I can let slide. It’s the conscious [but not explicitly written] choices made to stick by typically ungrateful revolutionists that raise some flags.
“Wait, it’s dangerous! Let me go first and walk into the spear. If I die, you’ll know that you should walk around the spear instead. *mumbles: tell my parents I–*”
This is exaggerated for effect…but how ri-damn-diculous is that? It’s as if no is not in their vocabulary. Like, dude, c’moooonnn.
Think about it: how often do we witness protagonists getting caught in some debacle that ends with everyone else bearing some mark of consequence? (Too often, right?)
I’m not asking for characters to flash the middle finger and peace out; nor am I saying that protagonists need to own up to their actions (i.e. that they ought to be the ones to die). It just doesn’t feel right when voices are represented [in action] as a means to push a narrative. Supporting characters ought to have that power to be selfish and say “fuck you” to the protagonist and yet not be invalidated for the choices they make.
Because if fiction is an amalgam of teaching moments, the message is kind of shitty to only consider yourself, as the reader and protagonist, inside a bubble of conflict where the only story that matters is your own. The reality is that much like your life involves doing protagonist-y things, you’re someone else’s supporting character and they are very much Player 1’s in their Game of Life.
So do what you must and save the world but those around you should also have the choice to say no to walking into battle, no to being a shield, no to being a voiceless pawn, and most importantly, no to walking into spears.
Some things for you to think about!
1) Tell me about your experiences with protagonists who seem to get their way and survive while everyone else gets maimed protecting them.
2) Which characters have displayed some of the worst invincibility complexes?
3) Why is it easier to accept the death of a side character than it is for the protagonist?
(I MISS WRITING DISCUSSIONS — and I hope this made sense. It wasn’t beta read haha :(!)
As always, think aloud.
connect: afterthoughtAn // twitter | anotherafterthought // goodreads
I had this prompt idea in the works before I read The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness but have only recently fleshed out the ideas.
29 thoughts on “[Think Aloud] – #23 – Supporting Characters Are Protagonists Too”
Omg Joey, I thought of The Rest of Us Just Lived Here when reading your abstract! That example with Harry Potter is spot-on though; many times, especially in younger kid lit, we see the sacrifice coming from the side characters, not the protagonist. At this point in my life, it seems like such a trite plot device that I don’t really appreciate anymore.
Usually when a side character dies and I don’t care as much, it’s because s/he wasn’t fleshed out in the first place. Like come on authors, we KNOW when you put a character in a certain place for the sake of plot.
But imagine what would happen if we’re in a situation in the middle of a book where the (supposed) main character sacrifices him/herself for the group and then we shift perspectives to the supposed side character who lives on? That would be pretty cool.
In the end, we (I use this loosely) like seeing supporting characters die because, well, that’s their way of supporting the mc or story I guess. :’)
It’s one of those things that perhaps comes with age; the debatable real life versus textbook “good” version of building character. But geez, if heroes can make the tough [selfish] call, sub. chars should be free to do the same — that’s how life is!
I think the switch of narration in the middle of a book on paper sounds pretty cool but I’d probably hate it. Unless there were already alternating POVs in the first place (this has happened before and I was totally fine with it).
I’ll actively admit that in many cases, I do enjoy the side characters more. They’re just much more interesting…
Personally, it’s easier to accept the death of a side character because it is expected. Especially in a fantasy book, characters will be put in life threatening situations and some will end up dead.
However, if the main character dies, it strikes me as the author trying WAY to hard to be “unique” or “dramatic.” So I’m ok with them living while others die.
At the same time, I totally agree that side characters need to be more than human shields for the protagonist. Books should have not than one complex, realistic character.
Great discussion post!
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I’d agree that it’s easier to accept the death of side characters but the degree of attachment seems rather unfair as its based on the merits of “their story”. The idea of “friends mattering but you matter more” is fine but it disregards the complexity of human nature in everyone else. Rather, it comes off diluted to only fit the needs of the hero which is a bit odd from a fictionally realism standpoint.
I’ve only read one series where the protagonist ended up dying and I was totally okay with it (unlike everyone else LOL).
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One of the most popular pieces of writing advice I’ve come across for writing good villains is that each villain sees him or her or xirself as the protagonist of his/her/xir own story. I feel as though the best supporting characters are written in the same way. It’s definitely something I intend to emphasis as I’m doing character-building during this NaNo, too. Wherever they fit in the story, characters should be treated as real people, imo.
That writing advice ought to apply to everyone even if they don’t believe it to be true — there should be shades of it. Some of the best characters I’ve come across aren’t just “good” or “bad” but they rest in the grey areas in between. I wish you luck on crafting your perfect characters that fit the narrative you want to tell!
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Maybe it would be a refreshing spin if a protagonist died instead. But it kind of depends on how it would be executed (omo, the pun). Like if Harry died because he tripped and fell while the moving staircases were in motion, I’d be outraged to have went through thousand of pages to see “the boy who lived” die because of his clumsiness. If it’s a noble, “fight to the death” type of demise I’d probably be okay with it and wouldn’t feel like I read all those books in vain. Also, I think I’d be okay with an MC dying in a standalone but in a series, especially a long one? No way. If the series is good, the author probably made me grow attached to that protagonist. If he/she dies part of my heart will wither because of the sorrow, lol. Can you imagine how many readers would hunt that author down if their favorite protagonist was killed?
However, Jocelyn at 52 Letters (above^^) made a good point. Sometimes killing the main MC(s) could be too dramatic and leave a more adverse impact. Like think about Shakespeare. How ridiculous R&J’s death were. I never really liked Shakespeare’s work though. They’re called comedies/tragedies/dramas for a reason, I suppose.
And I think the death of side characters is kind of widely accepted because they’re just the supporting cast. Often times we don’t really get their perspective of the story explicitly. So we never really get to know them compared to the protagonists. So no deep attachment (but I guess this isn’t always the case). Their death=ok.
Aww, one of your beta readers is Savindi, right? I talked to her yesterday and she’s had a lot going on lately.
GOOD OL’ SUMMER MIA IN BLOGOSPHERE AND COMES BACK WITH MASSIVE COMMENTS.
I’d be okay with that death for Harry Potter — not gonna lie. But for protagonist death and readership backlash, there was a lot of it in a certain series two years ago. It was brutal. And, if I’m being honest, I was totally fine with how it arc’d it’s just that I feel as though so often we put these heroes into a vacuum that “they cannot die” and “they’ll reach a just redemption” as if it’s some checklist. People will dislike death no matter what but to say that certain characters can escape death is rather derpy to me. (But that’s just me.)
And yes, Savindi was my main beta reader haha.
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1+2) Zoey from PC Cast’s House of Night Series has got to be one of the worst heroines for this that I have ever had the displeasure of reading. I call it “lead-heroine-sacrifice-syndrome”, where the heroine feels she has to do everything on her own when simply talking to her comrades would have easily solved the problem. Gwen from Mythos Academy or Calla from Nightshade are other fine examples.
The worst part is, after their idiotic move is performed, the spend the rest of the book wallowing in their idiotic move and all the trouble it caused. They lose a lot of points with me when that happens.
3) I would argue that I am the opposite. For me, it’s harder to lose a sidekick than a protagonist. I find I easily get annoyed with leads and gravitate more towards the side characters when it comes to favourite characters. So when one of them dies, I’m really upset. I’ve shed quite a few tears over some of my favourite side characters deaths.
Miscommunication is by far one of the most tedious things to read into because if it’s done well and the disconnect rings true then yeah, it’s possible. But if it’s life and death and you’re the hero and savior blah blah blah and you don’t talk to your team — no, just no.
I think you’ve described a lot of Second Book Syndrome in the reflective part of their journey after “bad decisions” catch up with them by the end of book one. It’s worse when they’re supposed to be facing perilous environments and you have them whining for 1826128 pages oh my god.
I LOVE SIDE CHARACTERS TOOOOO. They’re [usually] much more interesting to read about for me. I’ve shed tears for pets whom I’ve considered “side characters”.
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Great discussion post. I think the reason people don’t react as much to a side character’s death is because we don’t actually get to explore their lives outside of the role they play in the protagonists life and so we don’t feel as connected to them. I also think that by now you just expect it and you know one of the side characters will eventually die and so there’s no real element of surprise, just anticipation.
What I appreciated about Allegiant was the fact that Tris as the main protagonist did in fact die and stay dead. There are so many books now that kill off the main character only to bring them back so I appreciated the finality of Tris’ fate, no matter how much I hated it haha.
There are some instances where I have found myself getting emotional over a side character’s death but I still felt that their fates are always tied to the overall character arc of our main protagonist.
You make a good point re: not really knowing a side character’s story so they’re easily passed off when they die — but it’s still troubling to consider that they’re [basically] meaningless in the thick of things.
I think as a character arc, the death that happened in Allegiant was fine (personally). Sure, the community raised their pitchforks when it happened but given the circumstances, it felt right…? (Of course, it didn’t hurt as much as a certain boy and the RANDOM EXPLOSION THAT KILLED HIM LIKE WHY?!)
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It definitely fit her character arc and I don’t think any other ending would have made sense so I was quite accepting of that. However, the explosive character death was one I saw coming from the first book and I absolutely hated it. He reminded me a lot of Finnick in The Hunger Games and that’s how I put two and two together. I felt robbed when he died in Allegiant.
More often then not I tend to like supporting characters a lot more than the main. For example in the first book of Throne of Glass I absolutely adored Nehemia over Celaena. I felt the story should have been written for her instead. And then the second book came around and something happens to Nehemia which only sole purpose was to drive Celaena’s story forward. I was pissed.
Supporting characters shouldn’t always be the expendable ones… I want a supporting character who is as equal to the protagonist as it can get is all I’m saying.
I’m with you–supporting chars just have the freedom to be cooler, weirder, different, less stock-y and checklist-y.
You should consider reading The Rest Of Us Live Here. You know, just saying, for all the goodness of side characters ;)!
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My poor TBR is so large, what’s one more book to add to the pile? 😛
I value my side characters just as much as I value my protagonists/main characters. I also think it’s very important that side characters are treated like protagonists; not in the sense that they get the same amount of spotlight in the novel, but that they are written as if they have their own agendas and lives to them!
This is such a great topic I could go on for hours thinking and discussing it! Thanks Joey!
Right? It feels like a cop-out when a character is just there to be a decoy for the protagonist to live. Like, I can’t even count the number of times it’s happened that it feels so trite. I feel like I’ve been hurt more by supporting characters who are in pain/die more-so than the level of care I have for protagonists who get injured as there’s this expectation that “it’s okay…this character won’t die” — which is actually pretty unfair if you think about it!
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Love the ToG series, but I feel that this happens, as well as The Hunger Games when Katniss becomes the Mockingjay aka the MVP.
Divergent, with the invincibility complex, I feel that Tris was sort of represented as untouchable? Juliette in Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, too?
The last question is so thought provoking! Wow, i’ve missed commenting on these…i’ll stop, though. Can’t leave a million comments but, I think it’s because throughout the entire story or series, the reader is told that the side characters don’t really matter as much as the protagonist does. I get attached to the side characters as much, if not more sometimes, than the protagonists but I know that most readers probably do not?
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