Background-character Blues

I’m a sucker for side-lined characters. And I don’t even mean the side-kicks and secondary characters. I’m talking the kid at the back of the classroom who maybe gets one reaction line every five episodes, or the coffee shop barista who’s there for the lead character to vent to while they order their daily latté. The one-note character or the one-line comic relief.

It’s tough to pinpoint when I became aware of this odd preference. Maybe as far back as my ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ fandom days, when I latched on to Jonathan almost from his first appearance. Certainly, I’ve rarely cared that much for lead characters.

I think I wrote more Anthrax/Ebola fic than any other Boosh characters. (Sue Denim and Dee Plume in ‘The Mighty Boosh’)

Perhaps because I rarely ever feel I can relate to lead characters. No one writes lead characters like me – odd-looking, unsociable, queer or agender. Presumably people think no one wants to watch a show about a depressed nerd with little social life (unless it’s a young man with a video game obsession – see ‘Chaos:Head’, ‘No Game, No Life’). Even I think I wouldn’t make for a very exciting lead character, and I am my own lead character!

I’ve always seen more of myself in the characters who get relegated to the sidelines. The Jonathans, who only cross paths with the cool characters when they’re there to be made fun of or be saved. The awkward Emil Nekolas who want to join in with the fun but just get in the way of another character’s drama. In a world full of Utenas and Anthys, I was always a Wakaba.

Best girl. (Shinohara Wakaba, ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’)

Being a fan of side characters isn’t easy. Not only are we choosing to focus our attention on characters who have very little canon material to focus on, but more often than not those characters get passed over by most fan content creators too.

This is the part that confuses me, in all honesty. I’d always approached fanfiction as a means of making the stories that the canon glosses over – of picking up those little teased-at moments and less-developed characters and giving them the depth and the attention that canon doesn’t. So many stories I wrote and read in my first few years in fandom ran along the lines of ‘how did the show’s events look from that character’s point of view?’ or ‘what’s that character’s back-story?’

Something I’ve noticed over twenty years in the world of fanfiction is the increasing focus on shipping, at the expense of so many other types of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong – I love fanfiction for being able to give us love-stories that would never happen in canon. But I also miss the opportunities to write the other stories that canon glosses over. The noodle incidents and throwaway lines that only ever hint at deeper stories in-universe. The ‘what if that canon moment happened differently’ musings and the ‘how did that character end up falling into that mishap’ wonderings.

He deserved better. (Danny Strong as Jonathan Levinson, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’)

In some ways, fanfiction has become as repetitive as professionally produced content. I see so many fans imitating what’s come before – chat-fics and hanahaki stories and Harry Potter AUS – and every day AO3 gets flooded with more of the same tropes. And each time I wade through those same repetitive summaries about the same characters and wonder, ‘why is no one writing about my favourite character?’

My best fandom experiences have generally been finding the seven other fans who love the same side-character I do and sharing stories and art and meta between ourselves, all the while lamenting the fact that the rest of the fandom has written the main characters to death. We get along because it’s hard to create drama over a character who maybe only has five lines a season. We get creative because there’s no content and no merch for our characters, so we have to make our own.

Sometimes stanning the background characters allows you to discover great actors before they hit the big time. (Rami Malek as Kenny, ‘The War At Home’)

Doesn’t stanning a main character get repetitive after a while? When a character has a ton of development in canon, I actually feel like it limits what fans can create before crossing the line into total AU overload. I love reading Eraserhead/Present Mic stories, but I haven’t written anything for them because anything I could think of has already been written five times over.  And while I will read a dozen variations on slow burn/mutual pining/friends-to-lovers, every time I see another Class 1A chatfic uploaded to AO3 I die a little inside. So instead I write the characters with less screen-time – who cares about the Baku-squad sharing memes in a group-chat when I want to know what Kouda and Sato are up to. Trends in fanfic are one thing (remember ‘wakes up gay’ fics?), but rehashing the same format for the same characters over and over feels like the opposite of creativity.

Sometimes I think a side-character isn’t actually that side-lined, until I go to AO3 or search Tumblr tags to find out that there’s maybe three fics for that character (or dozens where they’re tagged but only given one line in someone else’s story). Looking for Musa/Shindou stories after reaching the end of ‘Run With The Wind’ was a surprising let-down, as I felt they had more actual possibility of canon romance at times than the two leads. Yet they have barely a handful of stories on AO3 compared to Haiji/Kakeru.

It’s sad, honestly, and the only positive point I can make is that at least sometimes it inspires my creativity.

The absolute Best Boy. This is not debatable.

When there’s no content for your favourite character, you feel a need to make your own. Sometimes all it takes is one person posting one story, and suddenly a dozen other fans crawl out of the woodwork to share their love. You tag the character, someone likes your post, and you discover another fan who’s also creating content and wondering if anyone else cares about that character as much as they do. And even if you’re not a content creator yourself, sometimes just asking for content can start something. Ask where the fics are for your character, and if no one points you towards any, then maybe someone else will feel the lack of love too and be the one to take up the mantle. Organise fic weeks, suggest prompts, share your headcanons. Someone has to start the ball rolling!

Which side-lined characters do you wish had more content? Tell me in the comments!

5 Comments

  1. I also have a soft spot for rather secondary characters. Possibly too many to name. For instance I was obssessed with Hevlaska from D Grey Man. I just talked about my love for Manami in Assassination Classroom…

    Liked by 2 people

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