It is my sincere belief that well-made fiction and well written stories are one of the foundations upon which the greatness of the human species rests. It is one of the things we do not just to propagate our existence but for it’s own sake. We may farm or fish or build houses or cure diseases to live, but we live to, among other things, read.
I therefore take the writing of good fiction very seriously. The most fundamental requirement for the creation of good fiction is in my opinion good characters. This holds true for television shows as well, and I consider these to be the equals of books, in those cases where they can claim a certain quality. We are here obviously not talking about the bullshit sometimes referred to as reality television, scripted as it may be, but of the likes of Firefly, Deadwood, The Shield, Battlestar Galactica and Rome.
In the books I read and the shows I watch I tend to notice and appreciate well written and portrayed characters not part of the main crew, who only appear in a small part of the work or who are there for the entire ride but stay in the background. I have here listed the first half-dozen that come to mind when I think about really well written and or acted characters of that kind. The order is arbitrary and anyone of them could be listed first or last. There may be spoilers below, beware.
1. Oberyn Martell, A Song of Ice and Fire
Unlike some of the other names below, this one has gotten his fair share of attention, that can’t be denied. It is difficult to say which version of this character is more awesome, the one in the book or the one portrayed by Pedro Pascal in the television show.
Oberyn’s greatness is perhaps more obvious in the show, as soon as he arrives he takes over the plot, the fourth season is often remembered not as the season where Joffrey died or the wildlings attack the wall, but the one with Oberyn. It is thus in the book as well, Starks here and Lannisters there but come on, if you could prevent one death in the book, who would it be, Eddard, Robb or Oberyn?
Why is it then that this minor character, with less screen time than everyone else of equal name recognition , makes such an impact on the audience? I think it has to do with him being a combination of several appreciated tropes at once. He’s the renegade warrior who fights his own battles outside of the mainstream struggle, while also being the delinquent noble sprouting whatever the Westerosi equal is of YOLO, and at the same time is a dark avenger, brooding and desiring blood.
The insertion of Oberyn Martell into A Storm of Swords from more or less nowhere is proof that George RR Martin can make the reader care for any character at any time, no long buildup is necessary. For a compilation of all of this characters appearances on screen, click here.
2. June Stahl, Sons of Anarchy
This one is complicated. She is technically a villain, but not the main antagonist in any of the seasons. She is obviously very competent at what she does, but may very well be a psycopath at the same time. This isn’t unusual by any means, ruthless but brilliant is a well established arch type, although often less well handled.
I knew for certain that they had done this character well just after having watched her die in season 3. The fact that you want the protagonists to fail to whack a villain because you want the villain to hang around for a while is usually a good sign with regards to the quality of said villain. I mean she needed to go at some point in the show, but I’d have liked it if the character had remained alive for at least another season.
Agent Sthal never personally led the plot forwards all that much, except with regards to the tragedy of Opie’s family life of course, but she always managed to enhance whatever else was going on. At the same time she had some interesting development going on of her own, becoming more and more unhinged as the show progressed, going from fiddling with evidence to shooting her colleague and lover. This to some extent helped show, as the show did overall, that realistic villains are rarely spawned in their final form at once but rather grown forth slowly.
3. Severus Snape, The Harry Potter Series
I was of a mind, at first, to begin this segment with a casual “fuck you” to anyone claiming to have known from the beginning that Snape “was a good guy all along”. This may be overdoing it, I shall instead simply admit that I did not. I had him for a douche bag from the first book on, and saw it as a natural continuation of things when he killed Dumbledore. I figured that perhaps the point being made by Rowling at this stage of the story was that Dumbledore too, to some extent could be naive and trust blindly.
Guess then my surprise at the way things played out towards the end of the last book. The feeling of surprise was of course quickly replaced by sadness, as I finished that particular chapter, put the book down and walked around and cursed for a while. It is therefore only in hindsight that I was able to tell that Snape was one of the more well-written characters in the series.
Everyone loves a properly done anti-hero these days, this one more than most, the redemption of Snape was perhaps one of the greatest part of the whole story.
4. Euron Greyjoy, A Song of Ice and Fire
This is a good example of the most evil villain imaginable done well. To say that Euron is a bad man is an understatement, a big one. It doesn’t take much reading of the fourth book in the series to realize that while ASoIF is filled with other evil people such as Joffrey, Gregor Clegane or Ramsey Bolton, Euron is on a whole different level and might more or less actually be the devil.
This characterization of Euron is done over the course of relatively few pages, there’s just a couple of chapters from the point of view of other secondary characters in which Euron makes an appearance at all. Yet in his extreamly few appearances he still manages make a strong impression upon the reader. Nobody who has read A Feast for Crows can deny that for a character with so little “screen time”, Euron will sure make a relatively big impact on future developments. And all of this is shown, not told, in the way he speaks. One can tell that Euron is not a bullshitter like Viserys or Cersei, when he says he wants to rule the world you know it has to be taken at least a bit seriously.
The Crow’s Eye is a masterful portrayal of prime evil, and it would be highly unfortunate if he was denied an appearance in the television show in at least one of the few remaining season.
5. Margery Tyrell, A Song of Ice and Fire
For this character I have to clarify that I am writing strictly about how she is portrayed in the books, the Margery of the television show is something else entirely.
Margery is assumed by most readers to be an intelligent player of the game of thrones, if not a chessmaster in her own right then almost. But this is very clearly shown rather than told. It isn’t shown either, rather it’s implied in a way that makes it seem obvious and a well hidden secret at the same time. From what she herself says and from what little is said about her you can easily tell that Margery matters. Her ambitions are to be taken seriously, not written off as easily as Cersei’s.
At the same time I have begun to suspect that Margery will turn out to be a good person in the end, which makes her something otherwise lacking in ASoIF, a person who is neither naive nor evil, neither a Ned Stark nor a Roose Bolton. This is of course just speculation, seeing how we know nothing of what Margery wants, even though she in fact has more screen time than other equivalently mysterious characters. Margery the mystery almost singlehandedly keeps the game in King’s Landing meaningful after the other real players such as Tyrion, Littlefinger and Varys have left the city.
6. Romo Lampkin, Battlestar Galactica
Now this choice may perhaps be less obvious than the rest. Lampkin is the lawyer who defends Gaius Baltar in one of the later seasons of Battlestar Galactica. He appears out of nowhere towards the end of the series but after a couple of episodes it feels like he has always been there somewhere in the background. This character isn’t as action oriented as some in the main cast, Starbuck, Lee, the admiral etc, nor does his arc has do do with the kind of difficult choices that Roslin and Baltar have to make. Lampkin’s thing is just that he talks, but he does it really well. Check out this Youtube clip for an example of what I mean.
It may be that I confuse how much of the character’s brilliance has to do with the writing and how much is due to the actor, Mark Shepperd. Shepperd has a good track record in sci-fi, he was great in both Firefly and Doctor Who. In fact I could easily imagine Sheppard playing the doctor, taking the rhetorical greatness of Romo Lampkin to the past and the future and so on.
Be that as it may, I kinda think that BSG started going downhill towards the end, unfortunately, and that one of the last really good parts towards the end was the trial of Baltar. In fact, the trial and a few other events saved the rest of the last third of the show from being significantly worse than the first two thirds, thus making Lampkin more important to the show than one may think.
Honorable mention, when dialog becomes poetry: There is a character who is at times annoying and perhaps not particularly interesting, but who I nevertheless must mention because of his on occasion masterfully written lines of dialog. I am talking here of Cy Tolliver in Deadwood. The character is sometimes involved in stuff I’d rather skip having in the show, but his inclusion may be worth it just for this scene alone.