So the other day, I was listening to “Let It Go” for probably the millionth time – cause, well, I just love Frozen — and that got me thinking about how, when I first saw Frozen, I related a lot more to Elsa, even though Anna is positioned as the protagonist of the film. She’s the one we mainly follow throughout the film, the princess who falls in love with the prince, and seems set up for a happily ever after. Her original main introduction song was going to be all about her being the unneeded spare while Elsa was the heir. Clearly, the movie was centered on her. And given that the movie was initially based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen,” in which the title character is the villain, it wouldn’t make sense that Elsa would be the protagonist, right?
She still isn’t the protagonist in terms of who we follow through the movie. But I related to her more than to Anna because I could understand what she was going through — the pressure of meeting the expectations of others, of having to hide one’s true self, of being rejected. In “For the First Time in Forever,” while Anna is filled with excitement and anticipation, Elsa is quietly reassuring herself, telling herself to conceal her emotions and “put on a show.” While Anna can’t wait to meet everyone after years of isolation, Elsa is dreading the occasion, because of what she has had to hide all her life, and knowing that one false move could reveal her powers to the world and change everything. It’s only once she’s forced to run away from her old life that she is able to “let it go” and embrace her powers and who she truly is. And that’s why she doesn’t want to come down from her ice castle — because there she’s “alone and free” and doesn’t have to bear the judgment of others. Ultimately, she gets captured and forced back to Arendelle, but thanks to a rather different kind of true love, she is able to save the day and be accepted.
I can’t be the only one who relates to this. And this is true even outside Frozen — often the character that proves to be the fan favorite isn’t the protagonist at all, or even a major character. This is as true in books and TV as it is in movies.
How does this happen? Well, I think it happens in a lot of different ways.
Characters who prove to be popular even if they’re not the main character are referred to as breakout characters. There are definitely a lot out there that I can think of, such as:
- Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Say what you want about Sam, or Sean Astin’s performance as Sam, but Sam is an unsung hero in this series. He’s the only character who’s able to carry the One Ring and not be corrupted by it. This is a magical item that frightens Gandalf (to the point that he begs Frodo not to tempt him with it), despite him being a mighty wizard and Maia, and intimidates Galadriel, an immortal elven queen who has lived long enough to see a LOT of stuff. Sam is my favorite character in LOTR, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.
- Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother. I haven’t even watched this show and I know this. Barney Stinson is a minor character on the show, but his antics on the show basically made Neil Patrick Harris the star he is today as far as I can tell.
- Stewie Griffin from Family Guy. I don’t watch Family Guy either, but by the attention Stewie gets, you’d think he was the main character of the show. He’s basically this evil baby genius, voiced by series creator Seth McFarlane, who has somehow become extremely popular.
- BB-8 from Star Wars. I own a BB-8 popcorn bowl I got from the theaters when I saw The Last Jedi, so I can personally testify to just how popular this character is. It’s basically supposed to be the new R2-D2 (despite R2-D2 being in the new trilogy), but somehow funnier in a way. The fact that Rey can communicate with it probably helps.
- Castiel from Supernatural. I have heard more than my share about Supernatural, because that fandom overlaps a lot with the fandoms for Sherlock and Doctor Who (with fans of all three shows being known as Superwholockians), so if you’re in one of those three fandoms, you’ve probably at least heard of Supernatural. And if you’ve heard of Supernatural, you’ve heard of Castiel. An angel character intended only to appear in a few episodes, he’s now as big of a character as the Winchester brothers, simply because the fans like him so much.
- Derpy and Doctor Whooves from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. So breakout characters exist because of fan support, usually, so one could say that most show producers listen to their fans and what they like. But no show does this quite like MLPFIM. This is a show intended for young girls, which nonetheless has a massive adult fandom (including me) and a surprising amount of male fans. And the MLPFIM team is very active with the show’s fans, interacting on social media and even devoting its entire 100th episode to side characters that were popular with the fans (seriously, the Mane Six barely appear in it). No characters show this better than Derpy and Doctor Whooves. Derpy is a Pegasus (sometimes mistaken as an Earth Pony due to her wings sometimes disappearing via animation errors) who mostly appears in the background, not even having a speaking role until Season 2. She didn’t have an official name when she first appeared, but since she looked kind of cross-eyed fans started calling her “Derpy.” When she had her first speaking role, she was addressed as “Derpy” as a deliberate nod to her fan name, though apparently her name has been changed to “Muffins” for unknown legal reasons (the scene of her offering a muffin to a character in the 100th episode may also be a reason). Doctor Whooves was also originally a background pony, though an Earth Pony in this case, and has also been called Time Turner in some official releases. However, because his mane design closely resembles that of the Tenth Doctor’s hair in Doctor Who, fans started calling him “Doctor Whooves,” and the name stuck. The show’s creators have accepted this, and the scenes of him in the 100th episode, as well as the MLPFIM comics, both majorly play up the Doctor Who connection.
What is it that makes this happen? I think the fan connection is probably the biggest motivator. This is most clear with the My Little Pony example, at least in my personal experience. And I think that even the creators aren’t able to anticipate the popularity a side character may have. If they are able to embrace it, however, I think it creates an unique opportunity. But it’s not just the creators who can help with that. If it’s a TV show or film, the person playing the role could just as easily increase the popularity of a certain character. Misha Collins, who plays Castiel, is very active on social media and interacts a lot with fans. Seth McFarlane is also in an interesting position, not only voicing Stewie but also being the show’s creator.
The power of memes is not to be underestimated either. Even a classic like Lord of the Rings has not been safe from the meme sensation; I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the “One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor” meme, also sometimes known as the “Boromir Meme.” Gandalf’s line “You shall not pass!” also pops up as a meme from time to time.
Being aware of all this, it makes me wonder how this might work once my own writing finally makes it out there in the world. I usually try to make my protagonists the ones the reader will sympathize with. But sometimes even if the writer makes it clear who the protagonist is, you find yourself drawn to another character instead. I’m currently reading the manga series Negima and Detective Conan (known as Case Closed in English for copyright reasons). In Negima, I do like the protagonist Negi Springfield, and you can definitely sympathize with him. But my favorite character ended up being one of Negi’s students, Nodoka Miyazaki, also sometimes called “Bookstore” by characters in the series because of her book obsession. She’s the second of Negi’s students to make a provisional contract, or Pactio, with him, after main female character Asuna. The magical artifact she gains as a result of this, the mind-reading picture diary Diarium Ejus, proves to be an exceptionally useful item, and later when she ends up in the Magical World, Nodoka supplements the diary’s usefulness with a magic ring that can reveal a person’s true name (thus dealing with the artifact’s most obvious weakness, needing to know a person’s name to read their thoughts) and a hearing aid-like device that telepathically reads what her diary says back to her, so she can focus her attention elsewhere when in battle. Originally portrayed as a very shy character with a hidden crush on Negi, she grows to become easily one of the most confident and powerful members of Negi’s group Ala Alba going into the final battle.
In Detective Conan, I tried to like the title character Conan Edogawa. I really did. I mean, the guy’s a genius teen detective (under his real name, Jimmy Kudo), who’s been turned into a 6-year-old after being fed some strange substance by members of a shadowy organized crime syndicate, while retaining the memories and brain of his 17-year-old self. But what should be a humbling experience for him frankly isn’t, even as he spends day in and day out living with the girl who is basically his best friend, and clearly has feelings for him but can’t get herself to admit it. Even though he manages to get work for said girl’s father, who is supposed to be a private detective but in reality is a hopeless girl-crazy drunk, that still doesn’t endear me to him. I thought it would get better, but I’ve read 45 volumes now of what is a 94-volume (and counting) series in Japan (67 volumes of which are available in English), and it’s not getting better. On the other hand, I really like when Harley, a fellow teen detective from Osaka and the closest thing Jimmy/Conan has to a rival, comes to town. He has the relaxed manner typically associated with anime and manga characters from the Kansai region, and he actually feels like he has feelings, which I don’t get from Conan. You’d think with the series having been going since 1994, creator Gosho Aoyama would have figured this out by now.
But for my own work, I’m not sure I can answer that question. Maybe I’m too close to the text. Or maybe it’s because all the main characters tend to have aspects of me in them. The only side character I remember falling in love with was Suiny from my old novel Darkly Bound. He was this self-made rich man, the owner of a big caravan empire, who was a friend of the protagonist’s mother and doesn’t show up till almost the end of the book. He was just fun to write. But he shows up too late for people to probably fall for him. In terms of more major characters, I know I definitely started really liking Allegron from Music Land Maestress, and have debated making him the protagonist just since magical girl series are never told from the perspective of the “mascot” characters. Nukata’s maids Kasa and Bara and her husband’s servant Shinji from Nukata: A Novel definitely became much bigger characters than I even planned them to be; I think the idea of the servants in a house being prominent characters has gained ground thanks to series like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Emily’s best friend Olivia in The CYA Files is quickly becoming a character I like as well; she is the one character outside of the CYA who knows about Emily’s involvement in the CYA, so she provides a sort of vital role in the story.
In the end, I think it probably depends on whether you, as the author, like a character, because you’re the one who created them. That would make it much easier for you to give said character more attention and not look like you’re just pandering to fans. Of course, if fans start liking a character you don’t think should be likable, you’re entitled to your opinion on that too, I suppose. J.K. Rowling said something like that about the popularity of Draco Malfoy, in regards to people dressing up for book signings:
Many boys dressed as Harry. Lately I’ve noticed people like dressing up as Draco a lot more, which I’m finding a little bit worrying. You’re all getting far too fond of Draco :o) [Source]
Not that having such an opinion is going to stop people from liking someone, obviously.
What do you guys think about this? How do we deal with this phenomenon as authors? Having grown up with the Internet and being an active member of fandoms, maybe I’m more aware of it than most. It’s probably going to have an effect on my writing for sure. But hopefully, like Elsa, I can not let it hinder me, and just…well, “let it go.”
Consulted Source: Wikipedia’s List of Breakout Characters.