1. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393

    The Overshadowed Main Character

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Bone2pick, Jan 30, 2019.

    I was over a quarter of the way through the book I'm reading (Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman) when my wife asked me for my early impressions of the novel. I told her that its setting was interesting enough, that its two villains were the most compelling characters, but that its main character was underwhelming. In fact, I jokingly said: As of now, I'm rooting for the bad guys. :evilsmile:

    For those unfamiliar with book, Neverwhere could be described as a darker and more dangerous version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Similar to Lewis Carol's story, Neverwhere's main character is an ordinary person who ends up in a fantastical world of mayhem and mystery. And like Alice, this book's main character has a personality that gets upstaged by nearly every fantastical character.

    I understand this was by design. But as a result, I'm more or less indifferent towards the main character, which keeps me from truly falling in love with the story. As I'm reading the scenes he's in (the MC is male) I'm interested in seeing what the strange characters do and say that he comes in contact with, but I don't actually care what happens to him.

    Has anyone else experienced anything like this? Or has anyone written or read a story where the main character was purposefully overshadowed, and if so, how did you feel about it?
     
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2019
    Seven Crowns and John-Wayne like this.
  2. EBohio

    EBohio Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 21, 2018
    Messages:
    1,016
    Likes Received:
    681
    Location:
    Ohio
    Are you sure he's the MC? The only thing that comes to mind instantly is Great Gatsby. The narrator/character is telling the story and is in every scene but really Gatsby is the MC.
     
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  3. Veltman

    Veltman Active Member

    Joined:
    Sep 13, 2017
    Messages:
    202
    Likes Received:
    143
    That's exactly what I'm going for in my current fantasy novel. The main character is our hero, but the real protagonist of the story is someone else. He's kind of a POV sidekick, but one whose actions end up being pivotal in the adventure.
     
    John-Wayne and Simpson17866 like this.
  4. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393
    Considering The Great Gatsby is one of the classics I enjoyed the least—I strongly favor The Sun Also Rises over TGG—that just may be an apt comparison. I would think he's the main character though. Regardless, he gets the most page time.
     
    John Calligan and Simpson17866 like this.
  5. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    3,413
    Likes Received:
    2,925
    I do the "First-Person Peripheral Narrator" in my book too, and my go-to comparison is the Sherlock Holmes canon narrated by Dr. John Watson :) but I'm pretty sure that's not what Neil Gaiman was going for in Neverwhere.

    ... My book is also actually similar to Neverwhere in that it's about Muggles discovering magic, but I've tried to keep my Muggles interesting by focusing on their reactions to the supernatural people doing supernatural things more than on the supernatural itself.

    It's been a while since I read Neverwhere, but from what I remember, the OP's issue "the focus is on the supernatural itself, not on the Muggle discovering it" does ring true for me.
     
    John Calligan and Bone2pick like this.
  6. EvenIfItIsForTheGRU

    EvenIfItIsForTheGRU New Member

    Joined:
    Jan 30, 2019
    Messages:
    8
    Likes Received:
    1
    Not a book but I always think of this as a Withnail and I dynamic. Marwood (the titular "I") is so overshadowed by Withnail that you get to the end of the film and realise you never even learned his name.

    If the fantastic characters are fantastic enough they can overshadow even beautifully written protagonists but it's a hit or miss. There's a difference between overshadowed and comparatively undeveloped.
     
  7. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393
    I'm glad you brought this up. I wouldn't characterize the book's main character as underdeveloped, even compared against the other characters. But I do feel that his goal—trying to return to the mundane world he's from—is less compelling than many of the other fantastical characters' goals. For instance, the book's antagonists.

    To take it further, because the main character's ordinary world and life is uninteresting compared against the story's fantastical world, I think I'm subconsciously (or maybe consciously?) rooting against him. If that makes sense.

    Which is an unfamiliar experience for me as a reader.
     
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2019
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  8. John Calligan

    John Calligan Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 8, 2015
    Messages:
    1,605
    Likes Received:
    1,682
    “Neverwhere” was a DNF for me before I started writing. I thought the problems and setting were bleak enough to cross over into becoming tedious. I’m sure in part that was because of the underwhelming MC.

    Some people think that the MC being overshadowed is a huge problem and happens because the writer picked the wrong character with weaker stakes, or because the MC doesn’t have a relevant internal arc that follows the main story, or they are an inactive protagonist because there is no story or the story started too early. Whatever. There are just so many ways it could happen.

    Unless like above, with the author intelligently choosing to make the POV character, the hero, and the protagonists different characters.
     
    Simpson17866 and Bone2pick like this.
  9. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393
    An argument can definitely be made that Richard, the main character of Neverwhere, has a lower stakes conflict than some of the other characters. He merely wants to return to his ordinary, boring life. While a character like Door—the young girl who pulled Richard into the fantastical world—is trying to uncover why her parents were murdered, as well as stay out of the reach of their killers. For me, the latter conflict is more compelling.
     
    Simpson17866 and John Calligan like this.
  10. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    15,342
    Likes Received:
    13,071
    Any chance you're supposed to be rooting for Richard to realize that he has the wrong goal?

    Edited to add: Also, I see that there's an "author's preferred text" version. I wonder if that's the one you're reading?
     
  11. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393
    I'm reading the author's preferred text. It's 440 pages plus a prologue.
    That's possible, but I think unlikely. His goal, at this point in the book (I'm 143 pages in) of wanting to return home is certainly a reasonable one—he was sucked into Neverwhere without any choice in the matter. And I do have some sympathy for him.

    But ultimately he and his goal are not what's keeping me turning the pages. I keep reading to see what Door is doing. And if I'm honest, to watch the villains intimidate and murder their way towards her. Honestly, Richard is basically in the way of the story I want to read, yet he has the most page time.
     
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  12. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    4,511
    Likes Received:
    3,550
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    Charlie Bucket is basically a bore. I liked Willy Wonka best. I've come across it in a lot of old fantasy books where there is a new world or place or situation that the mc is thrust into and they're turned into passive tourists. They're not there to shake up the world just glide through it. It's like the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy takes steps to get home but her journey is still rather passive, the only highlights are her lackluster ambition because she does nothing much to progress it. When she becomes a slave of the witch it's by sheer accident that she kills her - it's not even like the movie where she kills her out of desire to save her friend the Scarecrow. That was a proactive event. The book doesn't even give her that.
    Could be that writer dilemma -- how can I make my mc interesting without making them a jerk? So instead of having them make possibly cut-throat decisions the writer creates ways out or side characters to take the blame to insure their mc retains a golden aura. That leaves the side characters going after what they want - even if kids in Charlie and the Chocolate factory were brats they all went after what they were interested in. Charlie is not given any interest or drive.
     
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  13. Matt E

    Matt E Ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8 Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2014
    Messages:
    693
    Likes Received:
    736
    Location:
    Seattle
    A normal main character is a fundamental aspect of that brand of adventure story, isn’t it? I’m thinking about The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as two other examples. The main character’s normalcy allows us to more easily immerse ourselves in the fantastical setting. It does sacrifice some interest in that character, but it also means that the main character will be asking the same questions we will. It very much puts the world in the spotlight.
     
  14. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393
    I disagree that the mundane characters make those stories more immersive. But I do agree that their normalcy does sacrifice some of their appeal. The difference between a story like The Wizard of Oz and the book I'm reading, is that in the Wizard of Oz, none of the other fantastical characters have the proper amounts of will, ability, and motivation to hint that Dorothy might be unnecessary. Dorothy's companions (The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Lion) are broken. They lack a brain, a heart, and courage. Dorothy's determination to return home is of vital importance to the story, because it won't just benefit her, it will benefit her companions.

    This is not the case in Neverwhere. So far Richard has barely proven helpful or resourceful at all. Most of the other characters view him as a nuisance, and at 150 pages into the book there's nothing to suggest that any of the "good" characters will need him. He wants to return home, but he has no idea how, so now he's stuck in a world with no plan to accomplish what he most desires. Meanwhile there are other characters with more will, ability, and higher stakes goals. And they have bigger personalities. And they're mysterious and fantastical.

    Maybe things will change as I read more. But as of now, he definitely isn't making the story more immersive for me.
     
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  15. cosmic lights

    cosmic lights Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 30, 2018
    Messages:
    846
    Likes Received:
    844
    Location:
    Norwich, UK
    This happens sometimes. I think maybe writers get carried away with the fantasy stuff and forget to flesh out their main character.
    But I think most ordinary humans would seem pretty boring in comparison to most fantasy beings.
    But when it comes to human vs human there is no excuse.
    But I did hear someone say once, they create a bland character that anyone can 'become' and that having a really colourful main character, cast and setting can overwhelm the reader - too much going on maybe.
    I tend to be the opposite so my Fantasy worlds don't feel that grand.
     
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  16. Bone2pick

    Bone2pick Assertive Neophyte Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2018
    Messages:
    1,365
    Likes Received:
    1,393
    For those interested I have a Neverwhere update: page 248 revealed that Richard, among his other fears, is scared of heights.

    On page 290, Door assigned Richard the menial task of getting the group food while they shopped at a market. But because Richard is such an utter incompetent, the following was his reaction: Richard felt oddly proud. . . . He would Go, and he would Bring Back Food. He puffed out his chest. :superthink:

    Page 307 revealed that Richard is claustrophobic...

    Richard isn't just overshadowed by the book's other characters, he is ceaselessly emphasized as the least capable. Personally speaking, I wouldn't compare him to Dorothy, Alice, or Charlie Bucket. Richard is in a class of his own when it comes to being an underwhelming Main Character.
     
  17. Fallow

    Fallow Banned

    Joined:
    Feb 1, 2019
    Messages:
    617
    Likes Received:
    359
    I think it is definitely true that you are indifferent to the main character. But I don't know if it is definitely true that your disinterest in the story is solely for this reason. It has to be possible to construct a story you would enjoy despite having a "weak" main character, which leads me to believe that this book has a weak main character and no balancing story elements to make up for that. I would guess the events of the story, the interactions and the build of tension are probably also lacking for you to even notice how little you like the protagonist.
     
  18. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    17,696
    Likes Received:
    19,824
    Location:
    Scotland
    I suppose you won't know till you get to the end—but is making an incompetent narrator something Gaiman has done to showcase the fantasy 'world' he's created? The character doesn't influence the scheme of things at all, and that's intentional on Gaiman's part?

    I think that sort of thing has probably been done before, but maybe with a slightly more interesting incompetent narrator?

    I have always wanted to like Neil Gaiman's work, but never could get into it. I've tried several of his books, including this one. Nope. Don't know why. It's not bad. Just ...meh....
     
    Bone2pick likes this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice