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Since starting to learn a little about writing I've noticed that I'm more critical when I read things. This has led to a conundrum I've had recently and I'm not sure if it's inevitable or the result of 'bad' story telling.

The problem is that when reading a novel I often times identify and invest in the 'wrong' character. By that I mean I'm more interested in one of the side characters than the protagonist and this leads me to not really enjoying the story. Not because the story is necessarily bad but it's become not the story I wanted to unfold.

I'm not sure if this is because I'm now reading things in a different way and asking myself questions about character motivation and development during reading. I'm not sure if this is because my imagination is starting to work on developing a story other than the one the author intended. I'm not sure if this is happening because the author is failing to tell an engaging enough story in the first place.

The best example I can quote is from a fantasy novel in which the young hero is being mentored in his early years by a veteran mercenary and a scholar. The idea is that the hero's formative years are full of lessons in both warfare and politics. My problem is that both of these characters seem to have more depth to them than the hero. I care more about them than the hero. I'm interested more in their story than the one that is being told in the book about the hero.

I've not finished the book yet. I am at the part where for, reasons, both of these mentor characters are no longer in it. I suspect that the hero will now be placed in a position to make decisions and face choices based on their teachings but I'm not sure I can be bothered to find out. I don't really care that much what happens to the hero now those interesting characters are gone.

To turn this into a question. Is this a fault of some sort in the story or the writing of the author? Is it usual that some of a books audience will become more invested in a side character than the main one simply because of personal bias?


EDIT: I wanted to add something after selecting my answer. That is because the one I selected most directly applies to me however I would urge anyone reading this now to look at all the answers as they do contain interesting information. I don't really feel like selecting just one does the others justice. I'm now of the opinion that there will always be a few people that identify with the 'wrong' character from the point of view of the author. It's only a real problem if most people do that. Even then the author may be more interested in telling the story they want to tell rather than making the work more popular. That decision is theirs alone to make.

  • are you finding this in one particular genre (fantasy, YA, YA dystopia) or across all genres? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 26 '16 at 11:11
  • @LaurenIpsum Both in Sci Fi and Fantasy which also happen to be my most read genres. – Paul7926 Oct 26 '16 at 11:22
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    Well! You are exactly like myself! I've never really seen it as a problem, and it happens to me all the time-- not just with books, either. Kinda cool to see someone else with this "issue." – Numi Oct 27 '16 at 11:48
  • I've seen this a lot in romance, especially when the secondary characters are primaries in another book. I end up feeling rather irritated, thinking "if you wanted to write about them you should just have done that...otherwise, make your MC a bit more interesting" – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jul 25 at 17:36
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It sounds like you're seeing this problem in Hero's Journey stories, which have a pretty standard arc (Hero leaves Home, gains Mentors and Helpers, faces Challenge at Threshold, returns Home with Knowledge) and you aren't as interested in the Hero as you are in the Mentor characters.

  • If you find this is happening in every Hero's Journey you read, from the Belgariad to Star Wars, then it just means that you don't enjoy that kind of story. Nothing wrong with knowing your tastes. I don't care for romantic comedies and "overgrown adolescent/poorly launched twenty-something acts stupidly" stories. That doesn't mean they're bad, just that they are for others to enjoy.
  • If you find this in every book you read no matter what the structure — you prefer Lestrade to Holmes and Watson, the comic-relief sidekick to the romantic heroine, Cindy Lou Who over the Grinch — then it sounds like you're thinking too hard about the creation of the story and not allowing yourself to suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy the tale.
  • If you find this in, how shall I say this, books geared to the Twilight audience, then you're just reading a lot of lousy books. ;)

For most books and most readers, the protagonist is the person in whom they are most interested. It's not typical for book readers to say "I wish these books were about Sirius and Remus rather than Harry." (the typical response to that is "hie thee to AO3 and start reading/writing fanfic.")

(I would say this is not necessarily the case with most movies, by the way; I often read in movie reviews — particularly of romcoms, particularly of female sidekick characters in any genre — that the side characters and the people who play them are more interesting/better actors than the lead characters.)

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    Thank you. It's certainly not every story but does seem to crop up more in 'heroes journey' style stories. The Belgariad was fine but even as a kid I wanted to know about Han & Vader rather than Luke! It's happening more now which I think is simply because I'm being more critical when I read things rather than just reading for the sake of the story. I'm also trying to read a lot more which means not just reading known best selling authors/books which may mean that the quality of the story and the story telling are not blockbusters for a reason. – Paul7926 Oct 26 '16 at 12:54
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    Though in the case of Harry Potter, Harry really is dull in comparison to everyone around him. HP is attractive not because of his personality but because of his privilege. HP is presented from the very start as the boy who lived -- he is special, and the rules do not apply to him. That is every child's fantasy, but it is also the central moral flaw of the HP books. Compare to A Wizard of Earthsea in which Ged's sense of exceptionalism is sternly rebuked by events. HPs flattery of our sense of entitlement may charm for a while, but it grows stale on imitation and repetition. – user16226 Oct 26 '16 at 12:56
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    @Paul7926 If you enjoy fantasy and the Mentor characters, try Exile's Honor and Exile's Valor by Mercedes Lackey. They are the story of Alberich, the Armsmaster, who is the mentor to many of the Hero characters in later stories. Probably the last of Lackey's really well-written and rounded Valdemar books. Anne McCaffrey's The Masterharper of Pern, isn't bad either, and Robinton is also a mentor/secondary character in the Pern universe. And No Dominion is about Gary Muldoon, CE Murphy's mentor for the Urban Shaman series. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 26 '16 at 13:23
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    Why don't you try writing stories from the mentor's POV then? – Deus Ex Machina Oct 26 '16 at 20:24
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    @DeusExMachina I probably would be more able to imagine and write with the mentor as protagonist rather than the hero. My question however was more about where the fault lay that lead me to not care about the story that was being told and care more about something that wasn't. That can't be the authors intent so was it a problem in the story itself, the telling of the story or the reader. – Paul7926 Oct 27 '16 at 9:56
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Sci Fi and Fantasy are perhaps the genres least concerned with character. Worldbuilding (so called) is often the central obsession of authors in those genres. (Historical can just the same sometimes, with many authors, and readers, obsessed about getting the buttons right.)

Characters in these genres often exist merely to animate the world that has been built. It is little to be wondered that they sometimes fall flat and loose interest. That incidental characters will sometimes turn out to be more interesting is hardly surprising.

And if a story is not driven by a compelling character arc, but by the desire to explore all the features of the world that has been built (to have the character spring all the traps the author has planted or use all the gadgets they have dreamed up), then, again, interest is likely to flag.

One of the curiosities of human beings is that real story never grows stale no matter how often we hear it. But all the gee gaws of world building will grow stale, and even the most original and inventive world building will cease to move us after a while. The human moral arc, as familiar as it might be, is the one thing that holds our attention indefinitely, presumably because we are inexorably caught up in it in or real lives.

This is not to say that you can't have character-driven sci-fi or fantasy with a strong moral arc. You certainly can. But these genres are often dominated by other concerns. It may be that you have simply sucked all the juice out of the speculative part of speculative fiction. It certainly happened to me over time. It may be time to try more story-focused/character-focused genres.

It is worth noting that readers often grow out of sci fi and fantasy as they age, whereas devoted readers of romance or mystery seem to keep reading them for life. This is not to say that that there is anything wrong with the pleasures the sci fi and fantasy give, simply that they seem to be exhaustible pleasures for many readers, whereas more character-driven genres seem to give less exhaustible pleasure. This mirrors our experience with food, where, in most people, certain tastes are diminished over time, while others persist for life.

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    Harrumph. Devoted SF/F reader since childhood here, 85% of all I read, and not growing out of it anytime soon. I usually find romances boring. :) – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 26 '16 at 12:49
  • Yes, there are lifetime sci fi readers. But there are also many many readers, myself included, who read sci fi and fantasy with pleasure in their youth and then grew tired of it. My point is that these genres depend on the charms of something other than simply story, and it is common, though not inevitable, that people will grow tired of those other things. That's not to rank these pleasure on any scale other than durability, you understand. – user16226 Oct 26 '16 at 13:00
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    @LaurenIpsum Totally with you, hard-core SF/F junkie; but I would never finish a mere worldbuilding exercise book, it there is no characters worth investing into. – Lew Oct 26 '16 at 13:36
  • Thinking further on this, theme may have a lot to do with it too. Though any theme can be explored in any genre, certain genres have predominant themes. It may be that lifelong readers of a particular genre are attracted to its dominant themes. Like Lauren, I find romance, with its dominant theme of rivalry and possession, dull. But I love Jane Austen, who proclaims her themes in her titles. The dominant theme of both fantasy and sci fi is power and responsibility (see Spiderman). That could be a lifetime interest for many, but not for me. – user16226 Oct 26 '16 at 14:01
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    @LaurenIpsum I think people don’t “grow out” of sci-fi really. They grow out of juviniles and aren’t smart enough for the modern adult sci-fi. – JDługosz Dec 28 '16 at 5:36
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What you experience is the reason why I write.

Maybe sometimes it is bad writing that makes a book less satisfying than it could be, but very likely most often the perceived lack is that the book is not "about yourself".

You are, I guess, a person with a strong need to explore and experience their own mind. Books are for you a means to find yourself in a foreign landscape, in alien artifacts or magic creatures, in the lives of strangers. And when you feel that a book takes a wrong turn, then not because the story demanded otherwise, but because you would have taken the other path.

Reading such books is both frustrating and inspiring to me. Frustrating, because I am rarely satisfied with my reading and unable to find a "good" book; inspiring, because it makes me want to write the "right" story myself.

So don't worry about wether those books are badly written or just not "for you", and instead use them to drive your own writing, by giving you motivation and ideas.


Sometimes there are books that are just perfect. Often, they are not very well known and were not a big success with the general audience. One example is A Short, Sharp Shock by Kim Stanley Robinson. In his body of work of hard science fiction, this magical realist fantasy is the only exception. It is out of print, probably because it has never sold well, and it has received very mixed reviews. Robinson is an author I love well, but this book is one of a handfull of all the books I have read that I might have written myself, it feels so much myself. Another example is The Beginning Place by Ursula K. Le Guin. Again it is out of print and almost forgotton among her more popular books. For me, reading it was like reading about my own life. I think it actually helped me grow up.

As these two examples show, there are, of course, books that are "good" or "right" in that they touch upon my core of being. But apparently I am a kind of person for whom the majority of writing (and films and tv shows) are "wrong". I am not an average person. And that mainstream literature does never completely fit me is therefore not surprising.

  • Thanks for the answer. I understand what you are driving at but it's not quite the issue I was struggling with. It's not that a character makes a choice that I wouldn't and I lose interest. If I was John Snow in SoFI I would have easily defected to the wildlings instead of returning to the Nights Watch however I still did not lose interest in the John Snow character or his story line. It's more like you are trying to tell me the story of Robin Hood and I'm constantly interrupting asking "yeah but what's Little John doing at this point?" and ignoring the story of Robin. – Paul7926 Oct 27 '16 at 13:49
  • @Paul7926 I was just giving you my examples to explain the issue. Replace "character's choice" in my example with "author's choice of character" to get at what's wrong for you. – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 16:11
  • Ah, yes that makes sense. – Paul7926 Oct 27 '16 at 16:18
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I think it's important to know what kind of writer you are. If you're disappointed at yourself at the way a book turns out (you didn't plan it that way) or whether you're intrigued by yourself at coming up with unexpected turns then I believe you might still be developing as a writer.

With regards to your question, I believe that there are many examples that portray a scheme of characters where the character that is least emphasized or a character that is least expected to come to shine in the spot light does indeed turn the whole plot on it's head and makes the reader have to re-evaluate everything from the first word he read.

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Since your questions can and have basically been answered with one-liners ("Because taste is different, is it a true 'fault' of the author if you fail to like his hero?", and "Yes, people are diverse. Yes, some of them will probably like your secondary characters better than your hero."), here's some further thoughts on the topic of secondary characters and likeability:

I noticed that I have a peculiar weakness for characters that are second in command. These characters do have power and provide an excellent source for secondary identification, but they are not the heroes. Yet, these characters are usually my favourite characters in the book. Examples would be Starbuck in Moby Dick, Henry in Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Sirius in Harry Potter, or Childermass in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I would not at all mind to read entire book series about these characters. And yet I'm happy to have them play secondary roles in their respective works. The reason, I think, is that for me these characters act as a piece of chocolate in the dietary plan of the book. I thoroughly like these characters, but I'm not sure I could devour an entire book about them. (Just think of the gorgeous piece of cake you saw in your favourite bakery. It sure looks delicious, but then, after a third of the piece, you find that you can't possible eat one more bite of it.)

Which brings me to: The purpose of secondary characters. Yes, usually they serve a well defined purpose in terms of the plot. The Hero's Journey knows half an army of different types of secondary characters that all swarm around the hero and help to advance his/her story.

However, secondary characters can also serve an emotional purpose. They can contrast or enhance certain traits of the main character, and sometimes, it's just a relief to take your attention away from the hero and focus on somebody entirely different for a moment. Secondary characters can provide likeability and the occasional smile when the hero struggles with his/her inner demons or just committed to enormous folly. In the same manner, they can provide utter unlikeability and spell out a simple insight for you: Really, that hero person is not that bad after all ...

Concerning your question, also think of this: You never get to know your secondary characters as intimately as the main character(s). It is easy to like someone that you don't know very well, especially if you are a hopelessly optimistic person when it comes to other people, and yes, humanity in general. Keeping up that sympathy, however, when you get to know that person better and are confronted with his/her failings and flaws, is not always easy. (Think that "always" underlined. When you meet your soul mate, falling in love with him/her should be the easiest thing in the world, at least when you believe in soul mates and Hollywood romantics.) I had (real) acquaintances that I hardly see any more, because at some point, I paused and wondered: "How could you ever think that person likeable?" Answer: Because you did not know all the dirty details. And while flaws are an essential part of human characters and tend to make a person interesting and approachable, there's some that I simply cannot tolerate.

What it boils down to is this: Maybe it is easier to like (or dislike) secondary characters, because they appear to be less complex than the hero. Who knows: If the mercenary and scholar mentors had stayed in the plot, maybe they would have turned out to be worshippers of the devil or that weird kind of person that tortures piglets for pleasure. Would you still think them more likeable than the hero -- a person who has flaws, recognizes them, and works hard to overcome them, despite his boringness or peculiar character flaws that led you to dislike him in the first place?


P.S.: And for the record: I'm exactly the kind of person who concludes every single conversation about Harry Potter with a sigh and a tormented: "Why, oh why did she not write her series about the Marauders?" Because for me, that story would have been so much more rewarding and interesting. One reason is that I would have enjoyed the (adult) Marauders's world much more than Harry's. The main reason, however, is that the screaming fan girl hidden deep in my chest would have finally gotten her novel with Sirius featuring as a main character.

  • Another good answer, thanks. For me personally it's not about them being less complex and more likable. The mercenary in question was not some Obi-Wan Grandfather figure teaching Luke about the good of the force. He was a successful killer working for the highest bidder. He was however less well understood and perhaps that is the point. I know why the Hero does x or y because the author tells me. I'm not necessarily told why the mercenary does things. The hero is a bit too 'good' for my liking and those two things combine so that I am simply more interested in the mercenary. – Paul7926 Oct 27 '16 at 15:21

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