341 – Underused Characters
Sometimes a character you like doesn’t reach their full potential, and the only thing to do is yell about it for half an hour. That’s our topic for today, and yes, there is a lot of yelling. We discuss why certain characters are underused, what effect that has on the story, and why our favorites just happen to be the worst examples. Plus, a dissertation on why trees can absolutely be characters.
Generously transcribed by Angelica. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
Oren: Now I do what I can for this podcast but I feel like I could do more. I feel like I have potential but the narrative is just not exploring while it focuses on other characters, leaving my hypothetical fans unsatisfied because presumably there’s at least one of them around and they are upset at how little screen time I’m getting.
Chris: Yeah, I think we need to make you angry and grumpier. I think we’re really missing an opportunity there (yeah, definitely) for you to vent your feelings about stories.
Wes: You’re just too kind and accommodating and nobody wants that.
Oren: I was just doing an opening bit and y’all decided to call me out, what the heck. Personal attacks up here on the podcast, okay. So, this week we’re talking about underused characters, because the last couple of weeks we had deep and craft driven episodes and I wanted an episode where I complain about how characters I liked didn’t get to do enough.
Chris: To satisfy these theoretical fans that don’t think you get enough voice time on the podcast.
Oren: Yeah, those fans that I have. So before we just start listing them beyond me, there are a few things that can decide whether a character is likely to seem underused. If the character seemed like a big deal early and then petered out, or they had dramatic arcs but aren’t fulfilled, or they are around a lot but don’t contribute much to the show or to the common goal. Those are all likely to make a character seem underused. So, I suppose now I should probably just ask, what are you guys’ favorite underused characters that you want to see more of?
Wes: Well, first off, I like thinking about them through this lens because it’s not one that I sharpened my focus on. So, I have a few, then maybe more will come up, but I wanted to start with Heimdall in the MCU because I love Heimdall and I love Idris Elba. I will watch him do literally anything, but he’s the bifrost guy. He can see anything in the universe, and he can teleport people. And, what he ends up doing is standing in one spot, just talking and wasting his talents. Thor 1 and 2, I don’t care about ’cause they’re terrible movies, but Ragnarok, I remember that trailer coming out, it seemed like such a tease that, “Oh, Heimdall is going to be in it. Heimdall is going to do things that matter.” And he’s just helping some asgardians stay alive and he helps them escape. And so I was like, “Okay, great. Maybe he’ll matter in Infinity War.” And he just dies in the first five minutes of Infinity War. Sure, he sends Hulk off, but Thor is very powerful, but Thor cannot see the universe and teleport people. I don’t know if it was everybody’s weird racism with casting a black man to play a Norse God, doesn’t matter. Probably had something to do with it.
Chris: I’m sure that had something to do with it.
Wes: But you could not ask for somebody who can solve so many problems and they just won’t let him do it.
Oren: Yeah. Although it is worth pointing out that Heimdall is hardly the only member of the Norse Pantheon in the MCU, that gets the short end of the stick.
Wes: Oh, I know. I want to complain about lady Sif too. Immensely.
Oren: Well, that’s one of the things about the MCU that always confused me. I’m sure this is in the comics too, I don’t read them, but I’m sure it’s there, is that Thor is really powerful. And the explanation for that is that he’s an asgardian, but there are lots of Asgardians.
Oren: They don’t seem to be as strong, or nearly as strong. They seem more like regular humans. I was always really confused about that. It just seemed, thematically, that if you’re going to have other Norse gods, they should be on a similar level to Thor. But apparently Thor is the Asgardian Superman. He’s just way stronger than all the rest of them. And so nothing they do matters.
Wes: Yeah, which is frustrating. You could also say that then Odin is also like a really underused, Norse God MCU character. In the comics, he beats Thanos a couple times just because he can, it’s easy for him. Instead, we have another great actor/talent who just says some things and then dies.
Oren: Yeah. I was really disappointed by the MCU Odin. Odin is such a potentially interesting character. I feel like part of the issue is that the MCU is introducing characters from all of these disparate backgrounds, and most of them have a thing built in to show why they’re the exceptional one? Tony Stark doesn’t hang out with a dozen other people who also build Iron man suits, Spider-Man and isn’t part of a spider family. I’m sure he gets there eventually. But at the start, right? It’s not like he has Spider-Woman Gwen and Spider-Uncle Owen and “Spider girlfriend” or what have you. Aunt May, excuse me on that, I think Gwen’s his girlfriend anyway.
But Thor is this weird exception where Thor is special because he’s an asgardian, but so is everyone else on his planet. So it feels like the other asgardians should be more important somehow. And they just aren’t, because there’s not room for them, even in the solo Thor movie.
Wes: So frustrating.
Chris: Yeah. They did a better job with this, with Wonder Woman, honestly, where, yes, there are other Amazons, but she is specifically a demi-god or a full goddess
Oren: She was specifically made by Zeus to be a murder weapon, at least in the DC movie. She has a lot of different comic book backstories that I can’t get into.
Chris: We see the cool Amazons, but we know why she’s more powerful than them.
Oren: Right. All right, Chris, what do you got for us?
Chris: This is a character whose time was cut off short, I think because the actress actually left for another show. Detective Lockley on Angel.
Oren: Is that what happened? I noticed that that character just vanished.
Chris: According to what I have read, she got a part on Law and Order. Of course, you’d never know that was happening because she was being mistreated.
Oren: Right. Oh, gosh, good point.
Chris: Right, because Angel is really terrible to it’s female characters, and we know that Carpenter was being mistreated behind the scenes, hence why Cordelia comes to such a terrible end. So, you never know if that’s why the actress decided to leave, but she’s a really cool character. Obviously Angel has been off of Buffy, it’s about a vampire main character and the supernatural, and she’s a skeptical human detective that has really strong personality, plays off of Angel really well. She’s also just in a position to be really well connected where she has crime solving skills, knows about what crimes have been reported to the police department, so that she can call Angel. She’s really well positioned and she’s a really strong character. And then she just suddenly leaves.
She leaves in the most demoralizing way possible. Where she, because she gets obsessed with the paranormal after learning about it, she gets thrown off the police department, and then she tries to commit suicide and then Angel rescues her. And then I think she leaves an answering machine message or something? Maybe that’s before she commit suicide. And then she’s just gone. And she’s not on the show anymore.
Oren: Yeah. I remember being really upset about that. I was like, “What the heck was that?” It felt like a prank episode. That’s how you’re saying goodbye to this character?
Chris: Even if she was leaving, I mean unless she gave no notice and that was supposed to be part of a greater arc for her, and it just happened to be a really inconvenient time, you’d think that if there was any notice at all, they could have done something better. Instead, It’s terrible.
Wes: Well, it could have worked really well because like you mentioned, detective resources of a police force, Batman has his commissioner Gordon, the vigilante has the cop connection, it works, and it could have worked more for Angel too.
Oren: I get why someone wouldn’t necessarily want Angel to have more of a connection with the police, for obvious reasons, that clearly wasn’t really a consideration when Angel was being made by the people making it. I can see why people wouldn’t want that. But having a character who is specialized as an investigator, someone who is there, because Angel’s thing is fighting, that’s always what Angel has been good at. So, having a character there who is useful at finding clues and making connections, that would actually be a useful addition to the team that currently they don’t have. They don’t actually have anybody who’s particularly good at investigating because Angel just punches it over.
Wes: It was kind of funny. There’s an early episode in Angel called ‘Sense and Sensitivity’ where Lockley’s going after this mob boss. She ends up reaching out to Angel ‘cause her contacts, the people she’s bringing in, aren’t talking, and she’s worried that this mob boss is going to flee the city. And, somehow, Angel just finds him. I remember being like, “Wait, what?”. Unless his buddy, his little Irish buddy, he got a psychic vision, there’s no Angel just found this guy if this detective could not.
Oren: Yeah, just sniffed him out, you know?
Wes: Sniffed him out with his vampire…
Oren: …sniffy powers. (Laughs)
Wes: Sniffy powers. Side tangent, I find it incredibly weird that the vampires in the Buffyverse can’t see in the dark.
Oren: Can they not?
Wes: I don’t know, I’ve never seen them talk about night vision. It just always seemed to be in dark places, but then get jumped. I feel like they need more powers.
Chris: Admittedly, because cameras need light when you are filming something, the characters might be in darkness in a novel.
Wes: When your camera needs light, your vampire powers diminish.
Chris: If you pay close attention to outdoor night scenes in film, there are a lot of times, they’re not that dark or, alternately, people are complaining about how they’re too dark and they can’t see anything, like that Game of Thrones battle.
Wes: Touché. (Chuckle)
Chris: There are some limits there, but they could sit still, use darkness for suspense, make things scary at some point, and actually establish that they, you know – and I think probably in Teen Wolf- then we’re also going to see in the dark, right? They probably do night vision from werewolf perspective.
Oren: All right, well, I’ve got one, and then I want to talk about why these are all from TV shows or movie series. Mine is Finn from Star Wars. And Finn is definitely an example of “You promised us this character was going to be important”, because in the first movie he’s one of the big three. He’s one of the three big characters and he seems like he’s going to be a big deal. He’s a former Stormtrooper. That’s neat. Where’s that going?
And the answer is nowhere, ‘cause we just decided we weren’t doing that anymore, because who needs to plan movie trilogies? Why would you even? We also know that racism was involved, thanks to the actor who has talked a lot about this very openly. You can look up various things that he said, I’ll put that in the show notes. That seems like it was probably a pretty big contributing factor, but after The Force Awakens, you get to the last The Last Jedi, where he’s sent off on a side quest, the main result of which is that lots of resistance people die because his side quest goes wrong.
That’s just kind of a bad feeling that just leaves you feeling really discouraged. Then, they set up this absolutely bizarre sequence, where he tries to do a heroic sacrifice and someone stops him? It’s like, “I’m glad Finn didn’t die, but why did you set that scene up that way? What kind of message were you trying to send exactly?”
I don’t know. In Rise of Skywalker, his biggest thing is that he has something to tell Ray that he doesn’t tell her, that’s his thing. That’s what he does in Rise of Skywalker. He also attacks the navigation beacon, which I guess the First Order needs. That battle, at the end, is really hard to keep track of, so it’s very hard to say how important Finn’s contribution to that even was, but it’s also the very end of the movie. This is just a little late by then.
What I just don’t get is, the obvious thing is that he should be leading a Stormtrooper rebellion. Why is he not doing that? That is the clear arc for that character. Somewhere, they just decided they didn’t want to do that. And then, they just had Finn, and he was still hanging around, and they didn’t know what to do with him, it’s very upsetting.
So, here’s my question. I have a few on my lists that are from books, but I had to look pretty hard to find book characters that I felt were underused, as opposed to TV and movies. So why is that?
Wes: Well, Chris’ example is, and actually a friend told me about the actress who plays Lady Sif, actors getting dropped or going to different shows, seriously undercut a character’s potential. There’s that weird reality we have to deal with. Apparently Lady Sif wasn’t in Ragnarok because she was too busy with other things. Maybe she’ll be in the next Thor movie, but I’m still disappointed. So, I don’t know, books don’t have that problem. You’re talented actors aren’t going to suddenly drop you.
Chris: I would say, if anything, in books, what tends to happen is the writer gets overly interested in a side character and makes them show up the main character. (Laughs) It tends to be the opposite problem. There’s just too many characters and they fall too in love with all of their side characters. It seems to be less frequent that a writer creates a character only to let them languish because if they’re languishing, they’re probably going to cut it at some point.
Oren: Yeah, that’s one of the things I was thinking of. If an author really doesn’t care about this character, it’s not likely they were ever going to seem important in the first place. Whereas, in a lot of TV shows and movies, they start out with one idea, and then over the course of the production, things change. And that character is still around because they’re contractually obligated to be there, and you can’t just cut them, but the writers don’t care about them, so they get relegated to side duty.
Wes: Chris, you mentioned Teen Wolf earlier, so I’m going to say Jordan Parrish, AKA the Hellhound. What does that mean? I have no idea. (Laughter)
It bothers me because his powers are realized because he’s some kind of weird vehicle for collecting the bodies and putting them on the Nemeton, which is cool. I’m like, “Oh my God, what’s happening? He’s a Hellhound!” And then that’s over. It’s like, “Okay, well we got this Hellhound that’s a deputy sheriff just kind of hanging out, but he doesn’t have anything that really ingratiates him, makes them really feel like a part of Scott’s past.”
Chris: He’s very much off on the sidelines.
Wes: Right, and I feel like that was a really missed opportunity. He’s a weird kind of supernatural thing and Scott is kind of the parent to all of them, and helping them all get along.
Chris: He’s also a little older, and he is a police officer…
Chris: …or like a trooper or something, but Scott’s pack, they’re all high schoolers. He’s been positioned to be very independent or maybe – because they were bringing the police into it so often because we already have a sheriff character who is Stiles’ dad – I felt that they felt they needed to add more color to those characters that were getting drawn into all the violence that’s happening in the show. They just ended up making the side character a little too interesting to be hanging off by himself.
Wes: Maybe that’s it. Maybe he should have just died at the resolution of that storyline, because otherwise he’s just around and he has power, but I don’t know what that means, we don’t really explore it.
Chris: I thought he had a romance arc at some point. Am I misremembering?
Wes: He does have one with the banshee main character.
Wes: Lydia. Yeah.
Oren: I felt like that was a character where they realized they didn’t have the same guest star on to play this side character a lot, and so we’re like, “He’s been around so long, he should probably be magic.”
Wes: You’re so right! That had to be it.
Oren: That’s kind of what it felt like.
Chris: I will say that Teen Wolf, every season has a mystery villain. They always have one known villain and one mystery villain, and sometimes they add side characters just to obscure a little bit. To make it not too obvious who the mystery villain is, you need a bigger cast. Or else you can just be like, “Okay, well, by process of elimination!”. It is also possible to tell who your mystery villains are, unfortunately, even as big as the cast is, by process of elimination. But that might be another reason for developing a character that’s off on their own, but he is definitely interesting, and it would have been cool to see more of him, and have him more integrated into the plot.
Wes: Yeah, although maybe his powers raised weird questions about divine appointment instead of a contagious werewolf disease.
Oren: Teen Wolf also was just extremely unclear on what they ever wanted to do with the Nemeton.
Chris: That’s a wasted character!
Wes: Yeah, that’s a super wasted character! (Laughter)
Chris: I’m just going to say the Nemeton is a character, so that we can talk about how the Nematon is a wasted character.
Oren: For those who haven’t seen Teen Wolf, the Nematon is a giant tree.
Chris: It’s a tree that’s been cut down! So it’s a giant stump, but they even have a season where they’re showing it’s actually still putting off leaves. It has magical powers that draws all of the supernatural to it, and it’s a major plot point in season three. But despite the fact that it’s making a little chutes -and people sacrifice others to the Nemeton!- I was expecting one season for them to come back and be like, “Oh my God, there’s a huge tall tree where there used to be a stump here!”, and that to drive on a season or something. So wasted.
Wes: So wasted. That’s a really good one. Such potential.
Chris: Much potential.
Oren: Well, I’ve got one that’s actually from a book. I found an underused character from a book, guys. I did it. It’s Count Fenring. It’s from Dune.
Wes: Oh yeah.
Oren: Just the first book, I know he does other weird stuff later and I don’t care.
Wes: The other books don’t matter.
Oren: In the first book, one of the big problems with Dune, among its many problems, is that Paul’s victory at the end is just perfunctory. It’s so easy, because the Fremen are the bestest boys at fighting, and they kill everybody. They make a big point about how even Freman civilians can beat the Imperial legions. And then it’s like, “All right, Paul, you got a duel… Feyd-Rautha!”
And so it’s like, “Is he a particularly good duelist?” “No! But he does cheat by putting poison on his knife!” Earlier we established Paul was immune to poison, so yeah, whatever, who cares. But there was this other guy who was there, it was Count Fenring, who the book spent a lot of time building up as a huge bad-ass and doing the whole like, “Oh, he’s just a mild mannered weirdo who talks funny, but everyone’s scared of him cause he could murder them very easily”.
He’s the emperor’s best buddy, and is even his assassin, [which] we find out later. He’s also a product of the breeding experiment that produced Paul in the first place! He’s a failed chosen one. Fighting him would not only have been more tense, because he’s actually good enough to be a threat, but also could have even been thematic, of Paul having to fight the last product of this thing that created him.
Wes: Yeah. I like that.
Oren: And if you wanted it to be bittersweet, like people claim Dune is supposed [to be] -because people claim Dune is supposed to be a commentary, it’s not, but they say that- if you wanted it to be a commentary, then you could have this fight end with Paul being shaken up and being like, “Ah, maybe it wasn’t good that I won. Look what they did to him. Is that going to be me?”
There are ways you could have made that work. I was so disappointed that Count Fenring doesn’t fight Paul. Apparently later he tries to kill Paul in some later book? It’s like, “Man, talk about missing your chance, Count.”
Chris: I would like to say Darth Maul, in the prequel trilogy. And no, he doesn’t have a personality. But he’s really cool looking and sometimes that’s what matters! (Laughs) He has a disproportionate amount of excitement for how old his personality is, because the visual design is so good. They should have given him more personality, and they did, actually, in the animated series.
If you watch Clone Wars and Rebels, he actually has an interesting personality and is a good character. Those are secondary materials. (Laughs)
Oren: Right, to me that just proves our point: that the people making those felt the same way. That doesn’t mean that his presence in the movies was suddenly good. This is the thing I see people say sometimes when I point out that there was a problem in a movie someone’s like, “Well, in the tie-in novel, they fixed it.” It’s like, “I don’t care”.
All that does is show to me that I was right about the problem, because they had to introduce secondary material to fix it. That’s what they did here with Maul.
Chris: Right, but they just didn’t realize how cool he was, and just killed him off unceremoniously, when he really should have been further developed, and given an interesting personality, and stuck around for longer.
Oren: And he killed Qui Gon Jinn! He murdered him! He was really threatening and very distinct looking, and he could have been a great villain over the rest of the series, or at least into the next movie, but instead they kill him off.
So, they have to restart with new villains, who we haven’t met before. We spend a good chunk of the next movie trying to figure out who the heck Count Dooku even is.
Wes: Remember when Phantom Menace came out, and we watched it, and Darth Maul gets chopped in half. Everybody said, “He’s coming back”. He had that much presence, despite the lack of personality. You’d think that the show writers would have heard all of us talking about that. Ugh, yeah. Good example, Chris.
Chris: Yeah, and in the animated series, I’m pretty sure he had robot parts.
Oren: Yeah. He just got robot legs. He’s fine.
Wes: He’s got robot legs!
Chris: Which is totally thematic for the Star Wars universe. They later, in fact, introduce another Lord who’s just all robot, practically.
Oren: And then he went and recruited his brother Savage Opress. (Laughter) That’s not a joke! That’s a real thing that happens in The Clone Wars. The Clone Wars aren’t all good, there’s some very silly choices. Although, despite his name being Savage Opress, Maul and Savage have a pretty good storyline where they try to overthrow Palpatine and fail. It’s a pretty cool sequence, despite his name being Savage Opress.
Chris: Right, He has a really great role in Rebels where he’s the evil mentor! We’re always saying we want more evil mentors. He’s the evil mentor to the main character, for awhile. He’s also a Sith, but a rebel Sith, opposing other Sith, which just makes him interesting, showing some of that lost potential there.
Oren: Yeah, I really liked that. Wes, it’s your turn. Give us more.
Wes: Siruis went with disappointment, and I remember being super bummed out when Sirius Black just goes behind a curtain and I guess he dies.
Oren: Yeah. He went through a mirror.
Wes: Yeah. He goes through, I don’t know, it was stupid.
Oren: Or a gate, or something.
Wes: It’s stupid, and I got angry about it, but maybe the point was to bring Harry lower and make him have that weird outburst. It doesn’t matter. I like Prisoner of Azkaban. I like learning that Sirius Black is not the bad guy, in fact, he’s your godfather. But then in book four, he barely helps Harry with anything. And then in book five, he just dies. This is supposed to be like a pretty ingenious, powerful wizard who learned to be an Animagus in his teens with his friends to take care of Remus.
I know the book’s not about the adults, but ugh.
Oren: Yeah. It was a real disappointment, in addition to the disappointment of finding out what an awful person the author is. (Laughter)
Chris: I will say that in stories, when a character dies, there’s always a question, “Okay, are they really dead?”, because we bring back characters to life so often. Some of the problems with that death, even if it, in some ways serve the plot, in the fact that because we’re not really sure, he just feels a recurrence, because is he really dead? We could say on one hand, “Now Harry has a problem with closure because is he really dead?”. That this curtain is tempting Harry to cross, but on the other hand, readers also need some closure. When everybody’s bringing their character back to life, that has the problem of making readers wonder.
I also think that when you kill a character, if you’re not very clear, it can also be really distracting. If you want to kill a character off, and you want the audience to actually mourn that character, it has to be exceptionally clear that the character’s dead or they won’t do it, because they’re analyzing in their head, whether that character is going to come back.
Oren: Then you start doing fan theories about whether or not the character’s going to be alive or not. Then it turns out they’re not, and you feel very silly. Just in general, it’s better to make it clear that a character is dead. Show me a body.
Chris: Better yet show a body that’s been burnt up, or liquefied with acid, or cut into. I’m sorry it’s come to that!
Wes: You mean like, super dead.
Chris: But we brought characters back too often, and so now this is what it’s come to. (Laughter)
Oren: My last one is Ensign Harry from Voyager.
Chris: Oh yeah. 100%.
Oren: Or Harry.
Chris: They even taunt us with that one episode where we see an alternate future Harry Kim who’s the character we want. Harry starts as this completely innocent, naïve Ensign, and they even have one episode where we see an alternate future of a bad-ass, disillusioned, Harry Kim, which feels like the natural conclusion to the innocent naive Kim, but it’s just taunting us, because that’s an alternate reality and it’s not the Harry Kim we have!
Oren: And we erase it! Then we have another alternate reality, at the end, where he’s a captain and that one gets erased too. Just to make sure that he’s not canonically a captain anywhere.
So, what happens there is you start with this character who is young and naive and inexperienced and so obviously there’s going to be a growth arc, and there just isn’t one. He just stays that way for seven years. By the end, they finally decided to do an episode where Harry Kim demonstrates some growth, but it feels like it should have happened in the first season because it’s just Harry and some other crew members find this alien ship, and the alien ship is messed up and they need help. And Kim is the one with the most experience, so he has to take command for a short period of time.
That really feels like that should have been in season one or two at the latest, right? By season seven, that’s almost worse than doing nothing, ‘cause he’s just calling attention to how little this character has grown.
That’s also the episode where Harry Kim commits a war crime, because he gets involved in this war that he knows nothing about. He just assumes that the people he met first are the good guys. Then, when another ship comes to try to take their ship prisoner, he surrenders, but it’s a fake surrender to give them a way to defeat the enemy ship. That’s actually a war crime by the Geneva convention. You’re not supposed to give fake surrender, so that was weird. It was very odd that nobody noticed that.
Chris: Just to talk about how much Harry Kim is mistreated in Voyager, there’s one episode where aliens show up and convince the Voyager crew that Harry Kim is an alien, one of them, and they just let Harry Kim go.
Oren: Yep, they totally buy it.
Chris: And let these aliens take Harry Kim away. He almost gets murdered by these aliens. That’s an episode that happens. There was another episode where Harry Kim starts a relationship with an alien, as many characters in Star Trek have done, but this time, didn’t he get a space STD or something?
Oren: Yeah, it’s a space STD.
Wes: Oh boy.
Chris: It is a space STD, and then Jamie has a talk with him where she’s giving him a formal reprimand for having this relationship when so many other people have done it. She even admits in the conversation that she’s biased against him! But, she doesn’t think that maybe she should excuse herself and let somebody else decide on what the consequence will be.if he was violating policy. It’s so bad.
Oren: Janeway is, of course, getting real hot for an alien a couple episodes later, but you know whatever. (Sarcastic) Who cares. Poor Harry. So on that, I think we will go ahead and end this podcast. Hopefully you all will have better times in your life than Harry Kim. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.