The most interesting characters of a show is rarely the primary protagonist. Sometimes it’s the antagonist, but more often than not I think the most interesting characters happen somewhere in between. Batman has quite interesting villains in the Joker, the Riddler and Two-Face, but I think even then, characters like Harley Quinn and Selena Kyle can be more interesting.
Who’s the most interesting character in Game of Thrones? It’s easy to root for Jon Snow, Dany T and Tyrion Lannister – they are the obvious choices. The interesting characters to me are people like Littlefinger and Varys.
What about breaking bad? Mike and Saul are obviously more interesting than Walt, his family, or anybody from the cartels.
Someone pointed out that when you rewatch How I Met Your Mother as an adult, you realise that it’s Marshall trying to be a decent person while everyone else around him is being stupid.
The words that come to my mind while thinking about this are “fringes” and “on the edge of complexity”, “shoreline”. I’m thinking about this show I watched – Human Planet – that demonstrated how the people living in the arctic regions would wait for the tides to recede under the ice, and then go hunting for clams and mussels and stuff that are left behind. It’s the goldilocks zone. The character isn’t forced by the narrative to be Good or Bad, and so they get to be Interesting instead.
I enjoy Iron Man. Everyone loves to make fun of Justin Hammer, but I think he’s the most interesting character in the movie trilogy.
Bucky / The Winter Soldier might be more interesting than Steve Rogers.
Who’s the most interesting character in Harry Potter? It can’t be Harry, Voldemort or Dumbledore. These folks were ‘chosen’ by their circumstances. Voldemort was born to be a villain, Harry was born to be hero. Dumbledore might have had an interesting past, but he was positioned to be Merlin the moment the book started. The interesting character is Snape.
These are the characters who struggle with who they are. These are the characters we can’t be certain about.
Who’s the most interesting character in The West Wing? It’s not Bartlet, it’s not Seaborn. It’s probably the detestable John Hoynes. I think they made it too easy for us to decide that we disliked him.
In the movie Lord of War, it might be ‘the protagonist’ – because he’s not really the hero. The real hero is Ethan Hawke’s character, who is morally righteous and good.
In Mean Girls, if it’s not Cady, it’s Janis. Everyone loves or hates Regina, but in that regard she cannot be an interesting character.
In the Rocky series, it could’ve been the shitty brother-in-law, if he was given more room.
In The Matrix, it could’ve been Cypher, or Switch, or Niobe, or the Merovingian.
In the Lord of the Rings, it would not be Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf or Sauron – it would be Gollum, Boromir, even Denethor…
I think a lot of authors get very carried away with their love for their protagonists or antagonists, or the struggle between the two, that they don’t give their ‘middle’ characters the loving attention that they deserve.
It’s not always necessary to tell a story where there are “third party characters” who are the most interesting ones… it just seems that this is the space where really interesting, nuanced characters can thrive.