Rest assured, I am not seeing anyone. Here is a photo of Rodney McKay:
As you can tell, he's a character, on a sci-fi TV show, that hasn't been showing for several years now. Yes, I'm geeky! I confess! The truth is out!!
But bear with me anyway. I am not going to use this post to talk about some random TV show, nor about my preference for sci-fi over chick flicks. Actually, McKay is just one example of a larger trend: I don't care as much for the main character as I do for minor characters in a show.
I prefer Eowyn, and Peregrin Took, to Frodo Baggins. I prefer Han Solo to Luke Skywalker. I am more interested in Hermione than in Harry Potter, and I like Luna and Neville better than both of them. My favourite characters are almost always the minor characters.
I don't think jealousy plays a role in my preference for minor characters. In other words, I don't think I invest in the minor characters because I am too jealous of the adventures and advantages of the main character to be truly interested in them. Main characters don't actually have much in the way of advantages. If a reader is going to be envious of anyone, one of the minor characters would actually be a better target for envy - for example, Eowyn, who gets to fight in a battle and meet Prince Charming. Best of both worlds, yes? Certainly better than poor Frodo's fate. Frodo spends two whole books trudging through flat gloomy fields and meeting gigantic spiders.
So, why? I have two reasons, I think, but first, a note: I realize I am addressing a narrow window of literature, all within the sci-fi and fantasy tradition. My musings here do not apply outside the window, but that doesn't meant that the musings themselves are worthless. Here goes:
Minor characters are more relatable.
In college, a professor of mine pointed out that Dante's Purgatory, of his three books, best represents life on this earth. Years later, some of my favourite passages and scenes are in Purgatory, and certainly that book, more than the other two, is peopled with likeable and relevant characters.
In fiction, minor characters work the same way. Major characters, like Dante's Inferno or Paradise, are far enough above us (or, in rare cases, beneath us) that we don't find much to connect to with them. Harry spends the bulk of the later books in angst over his own fate and that of the world; Hermione reads books. Guess which one I at least relate to more? For an even better example, Harry worries about failing the world, while Neville worries about failing his classes, and Luna looks for friends. The world might be more important on a larger scale, but we connect with smaller battles, such as succeeding in classes or with a social life more easily.
Minor characters make more mistakes.
Although the wording is similar, this is a new point. As main characters tend to be involved in grand, world-changing schemes, they also tend to make fewer mistakes, or at least be called out on fewer mistakes. Sure, Frodo makes mistakes (such as suspecting Sam); Pippin is the one who gets yelled at and chastised for his mistake with the Seeing Stone.
My Sci-Fi character is my best example here. McKay is an arrogant, unobservant and slightly whiny character; my father calls him flat-out "annoying" and is deeply frustrated with his character. I, on the other hand, find something of myself in McKay. Like him, I completely miss it sometimes when I hurt people, or when people around me are hurting. It's easy to be whiny when I'm facing something I don't want to do, or when I'm in pain.
But McKay changes. This is perhaps the best thing about his character. He is, for most of the show, a stuck-up scientist and computer genius, but when the pressure is on, he admits his mistakes and tries to forge relationships with the people around him. Though he'd never 'fess up to it, McKay is, deep inside, a considerate and courageous person.
And so, McKay and characters like him - the feckless Han Solo, the carefree Pippin, the despairing Eowyn - give me hope that I too can change.
In the end, this hope for change is why this post matters. Literature is supposed to be about change, about reshaping the way we see this world and the way in which we live in it.
The main characters are there for us to thrill to their adventures and cheer at their ultimate victory: the downfall of Voldemort, of Lord Sauron, of the Sith Emperor.
The minor characters, however, are there for a yet more important purpose: to remind us ordinary people are too are part of, as Tolkien put it, the "Great Story", although we may not have the starring role. Like Neville, and Eowyn, and McKay, we too have our own battles to fight, and we too have the chance for redemption as we fight those battles.