Five Supporting Characters Who Outshine the Protagonist

Protagonists are fine folk…well, except for the ones whose main characteristic is that they are very much not fine folk. Often, however, the character that the reader remembers most fondly isn’t the lead. Rather, it’s one of the supporting characters. Here are five of my favourites.


Lupo Provik from The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook (1988)

The Guardships have enforced Canon Law for millennia. Enemies of the established order—whether alien, human, or manufactured persons—have been summarily crushed by overwhelming force as soon as they pop their foolish heads above the parapets. Simon Tregressor is confident he will succeed where legions before him have failed. This conviction is not because Simon is a raving megalomaniac with delusions of immortal godhood. Simon has Lupo Provik.

The austere bodyguard has been with Simon for most of Simon’s life. Indeed, Lupo planned the coup that swept Simon’s malevolent father from Simon’s path. Professional, brilliant, and diligent, Lupo is exactly the underling any would-be emperor would want, provided they’ve never wondered what would happen if employee and employer’s goals should ever diverge.



Sergeant Sam Anderson from Starman Jones by Robert A. Heinlein (1953)

Had runaway Max Jones never met Sam Anderson, late of the Imperial Marines, Max’s plans to follow his late uncle Chester into space would have come to nothing. Chester may have been a member in good standing of the Astrogators’ Guild, but he never signed the necessary paperwork nominating Max for membership. As far as the Guild is concerned, that is that.

Sam, on the other hand, has the ethical flexibility, experience, and connections needed to circumvent onerous regulation. Thanks to Sam’s experienced mentorship, Max acquires all the necessary papers needed to work in space and a position on board the Asgard. Max’s odd talents will prove invaluable when the Asgard is lost in space. Those talents would never have been there to help the Asgard without genially amoral Sam’s corrupting influence.



Ruth Ortheris from Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962)

Prospector Jack Holloway discovers that planet Zarathustra is not, as previously believed, uninhabited. The existence of the indigenous Fuzzies, as Jack calls them, means that Victor Grego’s Chartered Zarathustra Company, until now the legal owner of the planet, has an invalid charter. At least, it will, if the Fuzzies are deemed legally intelligent and if Grego does not orchestrate their extermination before the matter is resolved.

A subordinate in the scientific division, Ruth Ortheris is a qualified doctor of psychology. That alone would make her useful to Jack’s quest to win the Fuzzies legal status as people. As it turns out, however, Ruth has qualities of which her friends and allies are entirely ignorant, professional qualities that ultimately make her the Fuzzies’ most important guardian. The other Fuzzy allies have right on their side. Ruth is someone to whom the authorities will actually listen.



Captain Maes Hughes from Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (2001–2010)

Intelligence officer Hughes has one martial talent: he’s deadly with a knife. Other than that, he’s not a reality-warping alchemist of prodigious ability like many of his friends. But he is bright, diligent, and highly observant. These are useful skills in a war in which one side’s existence is utterly secret.

As Hughes discovers to his personal cost, his sterling qualities make him too dangerous to be left alive. However, as the series antagonists discover, Hughes is even more dangerous dead than he was alive. Alive, he was a brilliant intelligence agent. Dead, he is an inspiration. His friends, many of whom are reality-warping alchemists of prodigious ability, will never abandon the quest to bring Hughes’ killers to justice.



Aunt Cecelia from Heris Serrano by Elizabeth Moon (2002) — omnibus of Hunting Party (1993), Sporting Chance (1994), and Winning Colors (1995)

The Familias Regnant controls a respectable volume of space. It can rightly be deemed a Great Power, particularly in comparison with polities like the New Texas Godfearing Militia. Powers of enormous military and political influence can remain dominant, despite creeping incompetence, thanks to inertia. This is good for the Familias Regnant, because the Familias Regnant is a spectacularly corrupt monarchy. While the government does manage to eventually eschew monarchy, commitment to efficiency and competence remains aspirational.

Heris Serrano and her chums survive their propensity for stumbling earlobe-deep into political trouble thanks in large part to Lady Cecelia. Cecelia, owner of a large space yacht (on which her spoiled nephew Ronnie makes trouble in the first novel), belongs to that rich tradition of older women relatives of whom foolish young people are dismissive and sensible young people rightfully cautious. Cecelia is in fact one of the few competent people with an interest in governance. Heris and company are very lucky to have her on their side.



No doubt your fingers are even now clattering away on your keyboard to point out the characters you expected me to mention. Comments are, as ever, below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.



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