We’re all guilty of falling head-over-heels in love with the main characters of our favorite stories. That’s why the Oscars save the leading roles for last, maxing out the anticipatory fervor of impatient viewers. But isn’t it surprising how often supporting characters completely steal the show right out from under the leads? Gathered below are our favorite examples of these magnetic interlopers, who somehow manage to overshadow the main characters despite being on the page a fraction of the time.
Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare)
According to the 17th-century poet John Dryden, Shakespeare decided to kill Mercutio off early to “prevent being killed by him.” You know a character is intense when even his own creator couldn’t take the heat. Mercutio is neither a Montague nor a Capulet, and he uses his outsider status to relentlessly defuse the sentimentality of the star-crossed lovers with sarcasm, blue humor, and brilliant outbursts. His Queen Mab speech is one of the most inspired rants Shakespeare ever wrote: part comedy, part tragedy, part fantasy, all Mercutio.
Hermione Granger (Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling)
There’s no doubt that Harry Potter is an intriguing character—his name has sold millions of books, after all. But even he can’t hold a torch to Hermione. Though their friendship got off to a rocky start, Hermione’s intelligence, wit, and goodheartedness make her an irreplaceable ally. She’s the glue that keeps the trio together, and she kicks serious butt in battle, too. Just ask all those Death Eaters she wiped out. Oh, wait. YOU CAN’T.
Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy)
The hitman Anton Chigurh probably has one of the highest nightmare quotas of any fictional character. As with so many of McCarthy’s creations, he takes on an almost biblical quality as he mercilessly hunts Llewelyn Moss down over the course of the book. Javier Bardem nailed the role in the Oscar-hogging film adaptation, ensuring that Chigurh will eerily stalk through our imaginations for many decades to come.
Remedios the Beauty (One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Remedios the Beauty leaves an unforgettable impression on the reader despite her very small role in Marquez’s masterpiece. Impervious to the lovers who perish trying to woo her, she exits the book by ascending to heaven one day at 4 p.m. You know, a normal afternoon in Macondo.
Satan (Paradise Lost, by John Milton)
John Milton deliberately made Satan a much more compelling character than anybody on Team God in Paradise Lost. How else could he do justice to the authentic struggle against temptation that he observed in the real world? Satan’s famous soliloquy in Book 1 is an especially lucid piece of prose: you will invariably experience an elevated heart rate after reading it. His decision that it is “better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven” inspired sympathy for the devil long before the Rolling Stones did.
Harley Quinn (the Batman Universe)
Oh boy, Harley Quinn is so much more than the Joker’s girlfriend. She was originally a psychiatrist assigned to treat the Joker at Arkham Asylum. You know how it goes: shrink meets maniac, they fall in love, stage a breakout, and the rest is Gotham City history. In the two decades since she was created, Harley has steadily become the fan favorite in the Batman universe, and has outstripped “Mistah J” and even “Bats” as the most engaging character this side of Arkham. Here’s hoping Hollywood gets the message that comic book creators have received loud and clear: give us more Harley!
Mrs. Whatsit (A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle)
Mrs. Whatsit was a star in her past life. No, not a celebrity. A 2-billion-year-old ball of nuclear fusion who sacrificed herself to save the universe. As if that’s not an interesting enough life story, she spends her post-star time wandering around space-time as a winged centaur. Sorry, Meg Murry—you are a great main character and all, but you can’t outshine a former sun.
What supporting character deserves a starring role?