The Unlikely Heroes Of The Fictional World


For this take in the #BATTLEROYALE , I recalled a conversation I had with my nephew about fictional works where the hero/heroine/favourite character is not the main character and we wondered was it intentional, unintentional or superb writing/acting maybe even fan driven. I talked a bit in my take on Reality TV about how I much prefer to watch the character development in fictional works rather than intently follow the plot.

I have read thousands of books, seen countless movies and TV programmes of which I would say I can clearly remember the actual plots of a very few but I remember hundreds of character sub plot storylines because often I am more interested in what is happening to a character I like rather than the actual fictional work itself. I don't think I am the only one judging by the popularity of character centric fanfiction based on fictional works in existence. SPOILER ALERT - I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum just to make points. No CURRENT or FUTURE plots mentioned in this piece.

(1) Star Trek, A Hidden Ethos:

Gene Roddenberry when he first wrote "Star Trek" in the 1960s had that humankind would overcome all its Political/Social differences to unite, as a background premise. For some reason, I was not a huge fan of the "Original Series" and "Enterprise" passed me by a little bit but I was a big fan of "The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager". I don't know whether it was intentional or not but I think the later versions really ran with the premise of tolerance. The human characters were almost a backdrop story in the character subplots. You had characters trying to become human - Data, The Doctor and Seven Of Nine.

You had species that exaggerated a human trait almost negatively the Vulcans (too logical), the Klingons (too hot headed), the Ferengi (too materialistic), the Cardassians (too judgemental) and the Borg (too generic, believing that individuality was a weakeness) etc. All these species even the ones that seemed positive at first were shown to be flawed and that their community would be strengthened through constructive interaction with other species. In the shows, many friendships and romances developed between former enemies, which brings me to the point that the multitude of interspecies friendships and romances gave encouragement to those that advocated tolerance for multi cultural interaction on all levels here on earth.

(2) The Unintended Hero:

Back to the conversation I had with my nephew, we were discussing the book "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson. It was Larsson whose background was in journalism, who obviously wanted the crusading male journalist Mikael Blomkvist to be the hero while Lisbeth Salander was shown as a foil, with her penchant for white hot instant vengeance on those she felt were unjust, often the only people who knew of the consequences of the act of vengeance were Lisbeth and the person themselves, suffice to say they never did it again.

The journalist would painstakingly put the expose together and display it to the world. Readers were given the option of who to gravitate towards and they chose the emotionally vulnerable, childlike, vengeful but heart in the right place, Lisbeth over the almost grown up, societal hero, Mikael. In fact the original Swedish title of the book was "Men Who Hate Women" but by the time it had got to the English language market, fascination with Lisbeth was such that the book was now called "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo".

My nephew and I started to discuss was there any other examples of this. We thought of the "The Simpsons" when the show first started appearing on "The Tracey Ullman Show" in the late 1980s, it seemed to be based around the central character of Bart Simpson but over the years a more subtler anti hero came into being, Homer Simpson became the fan favourite.

(3) The Fan Driven Favourite Character:

This is intriguing especially in the world of the TV show where its very existence can be even quite fragile in the early seasons but the two examples I have picked seemed to pick a group and allow them all to start on a equal footing to see where they go. In "Criminal Minds" you have Hotch (the man in the FBI suit ), Rossi/Gideon (the archetypal profiler), Morgan (the brooding action man), JJ/Emily and variety of women (the strong female lead), Penelope ( the lovable techie) and Reid (the nerd). I would contend that Penelope and Reid have pulled to the top of the fan favourites table with maybe Reid slightly ahead. I think the fans want to know more about his background story arcs because he is the one that the fans are rooting for the most, especially with the plot development that he is started to worry he may inherit his mother's mental health issues.

My second example is "The Big Bang Theory". At the start, there were three main characters who had equal billing (Leonard, Penny and Sheldon) and by now they are joined by four other almost main characters (Amy, Bernadette, Howard and Raj). If the Leonard and Penny crush/romance had taken centre stage, the writers would have been happy. If the strained bromance between Leonard and Sheldon had, that would be fine. If the struggles the nerds had with the world, that would have been great but the storyline that seem to impact most with viewers was Sheldon trying to find his place in life. Believe me, he is so annoying that I might be first in line to strangle him sometimes if I knew him in real life. Still there is something loveable about him and the way his mind works.

(4) The Unexpected Hero:

For this part I am going to look at the surprising hero, one you wouldn't expect to create a connection with the audience. The two examples I picked here are a unique choice because they are basically two portrayals of the same character. Bron/Broen (known as "The Bridge" in the English subtitled version) has a Swedish detective Saga Noren, who is a brilliant detective with poor social skills and possibly Asberger's Syndrome. There was a US version but it was very similar to the Scandinavian show but also there was a UK/French production called "The Tunnel" which almost copied the Scandinavian show for the first season but went its own way for its second season. It had Elise Wassermann, a French detective similar but slightly different to Saga Noren.

Saga Noren felt if she was given enough information, she could logic her way through anything. She was in a relationship, bought the manual and followed it faithfully then couldn't figure out why it still went wrong. She would constantly pepper Martin, the Danish detective with questions about social skills in the first two seasons that often led to interesting side bits some profound, others comic like this.

In the car -

Saga: How come you get on well with people?

Martin: I just talk to them, small talk

Saga: Small talk, What's that?

Martin: Just talking about what is happening in your life, to start conversation.

Next morning at coffee break, Saga comes in and sits at the table -

Saga: My period started this morning.

She does show emotional vulnerability throughout the show and at the end of season 3 seems to be making a romantic connection with the new Danish detective, Henrik.

Elise on the other hand is portrayed as someone who feels that they will never be "Normal" and accepts that if they live their life a certain way according to the rules, she will be able to cohabit more easily with others. She is much more privately emotional than Saga and cuts herself off but in season 2 when she falls in love with a female suspect, it knocks her sideways a bit, it is against the guidelines but her heart keeps overruling her head, it has never happened to her before. The torment is interesting to watch, what makes these to characters so good to watch is not their strengths but their weaknesses.

(5) Superb Writing Or Acting:

Sometimes a hero develops or a character favourite comes forth through great writing or acting. My first example is the 1938 movie "Angels With Dirty Faces" with James Cagney. I will give the short version of the plot, two childhood friends, a catholic priest and a ganster meet in a youth club and the gangster is hero worshipped by the kids. Other events happen that lead to the gangster receiving a death sentence. The priest delivers the last rites on death row and asks the gangster to be afraid or beg forgiveness when going to the execution chamber to show the kids he is not as tough as he seems. The Gangster says "No" and tells the priest to go. At the end, James Cagney is being taken to execution chamber in front of reporters and he starts screaming, begging for mercy. The audience never find out if he did it on purpose or he just got scared.

The second example I have is the franchise "This Is England" that was shown on Channel 4 in the UK/Ireland. There was a feature film "This Is England" which was a look at society in Britain in 1983, a year after the Falklands war and the football/soccer World Cup tournament in 1982. There was 3 mini series that were follow ups "This Is England ('86) ('88) ('90)" which revisited the characters against the backdrop of later football/soccer tournaments. Shane Meadows did a magnificent job creating a core of about 8 characters but a different charcter or two shone in each version.

In the film it was Shaun and Woody

In "This Is England '86" it was Woody and his girlfriend Lol.

In "This Is England '88" it was Lol and Combo

In "This Is England '90" it was a storming performance by Chanel Cresswell who plays Lol's sister with her descent into heroin addiction

I didn't mention much as regard the storyline in the "This Is England" franchise but it is definitely well worth the watch so I didn't want to give any spoilers away.


I think to wrap up this piece about fictional works is just to reemphasise that it is all about the characters for me. Quite often it is not the main character that I like, almost as if I don't want to be told which character I should like or what friendship/romance I should root for. I think a good character can save a bad story and a good story can be ruined by a bad character, so writers pay attention to your characters.

Thanks for reading.


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  • 2mo

    Well not much to comment on with this other then good take and I agree that characters do drive a story, with out them its just scenery. Its also true for good science fiction that the science fiction aspects are their purely to explore the human component and that is what actually drives the story. Good take.