There is a disease among novelists which kills story ideas and quenches hopes of finishing novels. I’ve dubbed it, the Sam Syndrome. If you’ve ever said “I like my ally more than I like my hero,” you’ve got it. Condolences to your writing family.
The Sam Syndrome distracts the author from the heroics of the main character by dancing a “cool” character on and off the page. The prognosis isn’t good. If the author somehow survives the demoralizing vacuum of the disease and manages to actually finish the draft, their eventual readers will be confused by the dual-heroic nature of the narrative and eventually put the book down, after failing to connect to either of the book’s characters.
If you or a loved one is suffering from Sam Syndrome, there is hope. The prescription varies depending on your strain of the disease, we’ll cover a number of the most common, just to be safe. (Side effects of treatment may include: better outlining, deeper character development, and more compelling narrative.)
Before you decide that you like your secondary character more than your main character, here are a few boxes you need to check. You don’t want to waste time fixing a problem you don’t have, right?
The Wrong Character
The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason that your hero isn’t as interesting as your other characters is that he shouldn’t be your hero. Your hero is supposed to be your story’s driving force. Your hero is the person with the highest personal stakes in the outcome of your novel. Even if you don’t believe in the “chosen one” archetype, your hero should be the character who is unable to escape the story’s conflict.
Is your hero the driving force of your novel’s plot? Or does your ally spend more time in the driver’s seat? Which one of them has the most at risk? Which one of them doesn’t have the option of walking away? He’s your real hero.
“Like” vs “Identify With”
Okay, so maybe you like your ally more than your hero. That might be fine. It’s okay to like your secondary characters. Even your hero likes your secondary characters, right? The key is that even though you like your allies and mentors and all that, you (and your readers) should identify with your hero.
Identifying goes deeper than just liking. Your hero should represent you in some way. He should be you. You should connect with the hero on a deeper level.
Can you see yourself as your hero? Does he represent at least part of your personality?
Allies have the distinct advantage of playing very particular, often likeable roles in your hero’s life (see: “comedic relief”.) A lot of times, these roles can trick us into thinking that our allies are our favorite characters. But are they?
It’s okay that you like your ally, but you should love your hero. Even if he doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles that your ally brings to the show.
Okay, so maybe you do have an issue. Maybe you really do relate to your ally more than your hero. Maybe he really is your hero. Is that a problem?
The problem with liking your ally more than your hero is that it will show in your writing. When you’re done with the book, it’s going to naturally read with your favorite character taking up most of the page time… and if that’s not your hero well… yeah. This will make your narrative confusing and difficult to follow.
The Sam Syndrome is caused by any number of different situations, and I’m only going to have time to go through a few of them, but the solutions for any one of these cases can be applied to any other case you have.
Problem: One of the most common reasons that authors end up not liking their heroes is that they make them clueless. They think it would be cool to take a spoiled rich brat from a spoiled rich family and use him as their adventure novel hero. Which is true. But things start to go horribly wrong when the action of the plot starts to unfold. Turns out, their hero cannot (without breaking character) have any idea how to make it on the street and ends up leaning on someone just to get through the story alive.
Enter, the ally: tats up his arm, gel in his hair, aviators reflecting the glint of the sun. This guy is cool. Unlike the hero, who constantly gets himself in trouble, the ally is a street-wise gangster-smashing dude who seems to be able to boss around everybody. Throw in a little tragic backstory and a lost love, and suddenly you don’t remember the name of your spoiled, bratty rich kid hero.
Solution: If you want to make sure that your hero is able to stand his ground in the battle for respect, you need to give him some form of competence. Of course, he can’t have the rough and tough swagger of his ally, but he needs to be competent enough that every once and a while it’s him who does the bailing out. Maybe he knows computers, or how to pull off a business deal. Maybe he knows how to protect his back with a little black mail, or maybe his wit is sharp enough to wag tongues with the best of them.
Readers like rooting for the underdog, but not the stupid one. Make your hero good at something (relevant); you’ll be surprised how much more interesting he becomes.
Problem: The bungler’s close sibling, the whiny hero quickly, loses his audience by letting his dude of an ally do all the work while he sits at home and bemoans his evil fortunes. Of course, at some point (because he’s the hero) he ends up getting captured by the villain, but that just gives him an opportunity to whine more. Yay.
No one likes a whiner, hero or not. In fact, creating a whiny character will immediately make your reader feel pity for whoever has to put up with him, further elevating the ally in their minds. That’s not what you want.
Solution: If you want your hero to be a bit whiny, that’s okay. Some people are just like that… and every once in a while they end up being heroes. How? They take action. We aren’t going to like any hero, whiny or not, unless he takes action. Basically, if your hero is going to whine about A, he needs to be doing something about B. Or, better yet, about A. Readers have a natural inclination toward active characters. Take advantage.
The Mysterious Man
Problem: Wait, the mysterious hero is a problem? We all love mysterious heroes. Well… we think we love mysterious heroes, but have you ever tried to write one? Mysterious personalities are hard to pull off because they intentionally try to keep others out of their thoughts and emotions. It is so much easier to relate to an ally who wears their heart on their sleeve that we may just give up on the hero and fall in love with a more relatable character. Not cool.
Solution: The solution here is three-fold, first off you need to make your dark, mysterious hero likable. We need to see him demonstrate competence and action taking, just like before. We also need to see him save the cat, so that we know there is a part of him we can root for. Since he’s not going to show us his emotions through normal emoting procedures, we need to get to know him through his actions. If he’s making choices and doing things we can cheer him on for, we’ll start to like him even though we don’t really know who he is.
Secondly, you need to show your readers that, even though we can’t see them clearly, there are emotions going through your character’s mind. Often, in a deeply mysterious and conflicted character, this can be done through character masks. Ultimately, whether your character is emoting honestly or not, he does need to be emoting, or we won’t be able to relate to him at all.
Thirdly, you need to make sure that you are using all the tools in your author’s toolbox. The mysterious character won’t let others into his mind, but when a reader is reading his book, the reader doesn’t really count as another character. The reader should be able to see into his mind. You should be able to show some of your hero’s internal emotions to your reader through his character voice and internal dialog. (Keep in mind though, this doesn’t mean that you have to reveal all of your hero’s dark secrets on page one. Some things he doesn’t know about his dark past. Some things he’s lied to himself about. Don’t think that you have to put all your cards on the table just because we’re in your character’s head. Keep things interesting by withholding information.)
On a final note, one key mistake many authors make when writing a haunted hero is trying to justify the hero to the readers through backstory. “Yeah he’s messed up,” they say, “But if you knew about his tragic childhood, you’d understand.” That is a good point, and it’s probably true, but your readers will never know about that backstory, at least not in any real emotional capacity. It will be told to them, not shown. That’s the nature of backstory. This means that your readers need to be able to like your hero for who he is in the story, whether he has a tragic backstory or not. He doesn’t need to be perfect (in fact, he’d better not be), but he does need enough redeeming qualities that we can get in his corner without him sitting us down for a family history lesson.
Wrapping things up
Okay, there are three of the biggest causes for Sam Syndrome that I have seen. I hoped they helped you identify your hero’s narrative weakness and tighten up his character for your readers. Before I call it a wrap, I want to point out one thing I set myself up for in the very beginning of the post. Many of the sharpest of you have probably already figured out that “Sam Syndrome” refers to Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s soft-hearted sidekick. Everybody loves Sam, most actually love him more than the story’s real hero Frodo. That’s right, “The Lord of the Rings” has Sam Syndrome. Does that mean that the story is a flop? Of course not! “The Lord of the Rings” is a brilliant story that survived syndrome and all its many awful symptoms. Can your story follow its example and persist, despite your love for your ally? Yes. The Sam Syndrome is just a rule, a guideline.
But before you decide that you don’t need to change anything, and that your story can be the next SS survivor, consider this: no story ever suffered from a better developed main character. What’s the point of not trying? Developing a stronger main character can’t take your story anywhere but up.