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Designated Protagonist Syndrome
"But you didn't earn it. You didn't work for it. You've never had anybody come up to you and say you deserve these things more than anyone else. They were just handed to you. So that doesn't make you better than us. It makes you luckier than us."
This trope is when, compared to the many compelling "supporting" characters, the character whose point of view we have to look through is less interesting. This can cause the side plots (those involving the supporting cast) to be seen as more important than the main storyline.
This isn't about the popularity of the protagonist with fans. Sometime the protagonist isn't even intended to be a fan favorite. They are just there to provide a way to watch the characters that are cool. The protagonist is generic in order to provide an Audience Surrogate or The Everyman.
Not to be confused with Designated Hero, which is a character who the story plays up as being heroic, but comes off as being distinctly unheroic. A Pinball Protagonist may also result in this trope—the poor sap is simply dragged around the plot by stronger characters. Compare the Standardized Leader who is similarly generic in order to lead their team of more complex characters and be accessible to viewers.
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Anime and Manga
Some fans have leveled this accusation at One Piece, complaining that Luffy is the least interesting member of the crew. While the others all have tragic pasts and complex quirks and motivations, Luffy initially comes off as more of a typical Idiot Hero whose actions are usually straightforward and whose backstory is the least interesting. While this may have been true in the early days of the series, many fans counter that in later chapters, Luffy is fleshed out much more, given more interesting interactions with other characters, and that his backstory may not be as simple as it once seemed.
The author is a big believer in forcing himself to improve. Oda was well aware of the complaint that Luffy wasn't as interesting without his crewmates around. Taking these critiques to heart, in 2008 he did the unthinkable and split up the crew, turning Luffy into a solo hero for the first time since chapter two, way back in 1997. While this probably wasn't the main reason he used this plot twist, it seems to have had a positive effect on Luffy as a character.
Being one of the most prominent main characters aside from Luffy, Zoro gets this as well. Some fans believe he has the weakest, least developed back story, and possibly having the least character development out of the entire crew despite being in the story since almost the beginning, and lacking serious personality flaws that impact the plot.
Orihime Inoue is hounded for being an Actual Pacifist instead of an Action Girl, for being a goodie-goodie even to her enemies, and for focusing almost entirely on Ichigo, enough that her Character Development suffers each time Ichigo is involved. Some fans go as low as attacking for anything related to her role in the Arrancar Arcs, but mostly getting kidnappednote (Then again, her guard/jailer was the fourth strongest soul-eating monster. What could you do?). The hatred intensifies with every utterance of "Kurosaki-kun" after one chapter had her repeat over and over as a Madness Mantra.
Uryu Ishida, at the very least, is respected by the fans for his stronger will and stauncher sense of individuality. He's not as dependent or beholden to Ichigo as Inoue or Sado are, so he has a higher standing to the fans than most of the other members of the main cast. He has his own arsenal of abilities, which heavily contrast that of Ichigo, and he actually uses tactics in a fight, again unlike Ichigo. His relationship with his father and the Vandenreich also elicit interest from fans, but it was only until very recently that he's gotten more exposure in that department. Before then, he spent most of his time as another punching bag for the villains, and if not, he often gets shafted once he finishes up his role in the arc.
Renji Abarai has an endearing backstory, but his Character Development was essentially resolved by the end of the Soul Society arc, so he mostly just tags along in a particular event or fight, which he usually loses in order to make the villains look Badass. In a sense, he's basically been Demoted to Extra because there really isn't much else left to tell from him, besides getting new abilities. However, as of the Fullbring arc, he's no longer trying to surpass Byakuya, but Aizen.
It's worth noting that most fans tend to view Rukia Kuchiki in a positive light (some even call her the most interesting of the main cast), but she's been Demoted to Extra ever since she regained her powers; it's an odd inverse of an Ensemble Dark Horse being a main character, when said main character hasn't done much for a long time. However, there are fans that still find her to be uninteresting (in personality and backstory) and/or condescending, but they have less of a problem with her lack of screen-time than they do with how much praise she gets from her fans.
Even Ichigo himself gets these accusations. His toughest criticisms include sudden and controversial power-ups, constantly fluctuating levels between badassery and wimpness, a decrease in sense, and an increase of his chronic hero syndrome, even when his friends flat-out don't want it. Another common criticism of Kurosaki is how he's used as a Pinball Protagonist, whose only purpose in the series is to combat the Big Bad, even if he has no real reason to fight them, with the exception of Byakuya and Grand Fisher. It's rather common for fans to say that Bleach is more interesting when it doesn't focus so much on Ichigo.
Whenever the fanbase believes Bleach is declining in popularity to the Japanese fandom (i.e. the fourth movie and the Fullbring arc), their accusation is that it's because the shinigami captains and lieutenants aren't getting as much focus.
A variation of this is common in shows with harems or Love Triangles. Often, the first girl or obvious winner is much more down-to-earth than the competition.
Not to mention the harem leads themselves tend to be less well regarded than their female co-stars, Tenchi Muyo! and its spinoffs being prime examples. Heck, look at the games that many harem series are spun off from. The Dating Sim as a genre has existed since the dawn of gaming, beginning with Porn Without Plot games; though 1992 brought the first games that really developed the haremettes, there wasn't a truly fleshed-out male lead until Yuuichi from Kanon, and that game came out in 1999.
It should be noted that a major aversion, the Rance series, has existed since 1989. Rance had a unique and fleshed-out personality long before 1999.
Tenchi Muyo! lampshades this in its own title. It can be translated as "Useless Tenchi" and is officially translated as "No Need For Tenchi".
Many find the characters of Eureka Seven who are not named "Renton" and "Eureka" to be alot more interesting than them, and are disappointed that the show often shoves them to the side in favor of Renton and Eureka's development.
Ash from Pokémon is often accused of this as well, namely on how he is often deemed to be a really blatant example of The Artifact which the show would never dare to actually remove.
According to former head writer Takeshi Shudo, Team Rocket were deliberately created to be more interesting characters than the protagonists to encourage Multiple Demographic Appeal with the older fans, and (much to Shudo's displeasure), they were saddled with a repetitive formulaic role once he lost his position on the show. The result is that the fanbase enjoys their spotlight episodes while bemoaning their repetitiveness the rest of the time.
Not very hard to believe considering how many fans believe Ash is a one dimensional character who's most redeeming traits are the very generic traits of other shonen heroes.
Sena from Eyeshield 21 is a pretty likable kid, but can never hope to be as popular as his anti-hero captain, Hiruma, whose placed first in nearly every character poll by a landslide.
The Fate/stay night anime series presented a Scrappy Shirou to viewers unfamiliar with the visual novels, where Shirou is much more complex. Not until halfway through the show did he become as watchable as the rest of the ensemble. 'Unlimited Blade Works' improved his standing by spreading more screen time to other characters, and giving him more crowning appearances when he did appear.
Pick any Yu-Gi-Oh! related series, and its almost guaranteed there will be many fans who find one of the other characters more interesting, while accusing the protagonist of winning only through ass pulls. In Yugi's particular case, it appears that Yami has more fans; yes, a rare case in which a protagonist is considered less appealing than his own alter-ego.
This is no surprise, considering that Yami is the one who does almost all the dueling (at least in the anime), leading to many Crowning Moments, while Yugi mostly just sits around and/or runs into trouble.
Ikki Tousen's Sousaku Hakufu: Sure, people appreciate her Fanservice and the Spank the Cutie scenes, but otherwise she's not seen as particularly interesting or appealing compared to the more varied (and large) cast.
While Ryoma Echizen of The Prince of Tennis is still one of the most popular characters, he is considered by many to be the Creator's Pet. He doesn't have a great deal of character development, and suffers one significant loss in the entire series. Sanada even remarks on how he is merely a product of their generation's talent, with not much unique for himself.
This is a major matter of opinion though, as Touma has placed 1st and then 2nd in a multi-novel character poll, placing better than Accelerator and Mikoto both times.
For example. Mikoto's A Certain Scientific Railgun is much more popular than the main plot following Touma, but this is a subversion as Mikoto is a pretty run-of-the-mill tsundere and her supporting cast isn't any better than Touma's, just more popular too. Touma could even be seen as more original, having a more passive power rather than an offensive ability, which leads to interesting battles where he must protect himself first and figure how his opponent's special power works to be able to do something, making each fight unique and interesting. Mikoto has standard electric powers and thus fights more normally, albeit she's the Lightning Can Do Anything variety at least, so she isn't terrible either.
Medaka Box: The eponymous character receives some flak for her God Mode Sue qualities, even though she does have flaws and is supposed to be a deconstruction. Fans seem to prefer her Arch-Enemyand later, Vice-President Kumagawa.
To a lesser extent, Zenkichi's everyman traits are considered boring by some of the fandom.
Lina Inverse, the protagonist of Slayers was originally one of the more intriguing, interesting, and well-loved characters of the series: aggressive, powerful, and sharp-minded with a bearable temper and a penchant for wit. In addition to having both the happiest family history and the most straightforward (magical prodigy with two general store-owning parents and an older sister she's afraid of, when in fact is was said sister who convinced her to wander the Earth), Lina's temper drastically shortened overtime, became more selfish and of a bully, and, sporadically, treads into Invincible Hero territory. Her three friends and companions, Gourry,Zelgadis, and Amelia, all have histories that mesh well with their personalities (Amelia being so optimistic as a way to cope with her terrible family, for one), and now a large margin of fans would rather that they get spotlight time in some way, which they don't get very often (when they do, it's usually for a comedic story or episode, not for Character Development). This is unlikely to happen because the light novel series is narrated from Lina's point of view, and she has recently become the Creator's Pet (the novel artist's, anyway).
The closest instances of Character Development for anyone that isn't Lina is Zelgadiss' side story in a prequel light novel, where he chooses to not live hating others for the rest of his life, but that's it.
WarGreymon from Digimon Adventure was not well liked by many fans due him spending most of the fight each fight with the four Dark Masters helpless, creating the need for the other Chosen Children's digimon and their allies to bail him out. This even results in the loss of several digimon's lives. All WarGreymon really does is sneak in the last blow while the bad guy is distracted and weakened. Despite all this, 90 percent of the action is focused on him, and he's often framed as being solely responsible for his victories.
Shu Ouma from Guilty Crown. As one Psgels put it: Shu is not a character: he is a plot device. Whatever the plot needs him to be, he becomes, whether this is Hitler or Jesus. And yet the entire show revolves around him. The show keeps pulling more and more stuff out of its ass to keep true to this.
Duke from G.I. Joe is fairly bland and doesn't have very much characterization aside from being "the leader" and for refusing a promotion so he could stay in the field. His teammates include a silent ninja master with a wolf, a Vietnam veteran who was once a street thug, a heavy machine gunner who surfs and plays bass guitar, and a gourmet chef who wields a massive chaingun.
Tintin was deliberately designed so that every reader could identify with him, so he has no family, no back story, no personal connections, nothing apart from what is shown in the adventures. So it probably is no coincidence that he was not just overshadowed by the colourful Captain Haddock - who for instance has Captain Chester as a friend from the days before his first appearance as well as a famous ancestor from the days of Louis XIV - but even the Thom(p)sons and Bianca Castafiore seem to be more popular subjects of critical treatises.
The thing though is that the series is first and foremost about Tintin - he has plenty of old friends, but readers were shown how he first met them in the course of his adventures. Thus while Haddock introduces Tintin to Captain Chester, he only gets to know e. g. Abdallah, Alcazar, Oliveira da Figueira, and Chang through Tintin.
Brad and Janet are the main characters/heroes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and, while they do have a pretty decent number of fans, they're nowhere near as popular as Dr. Frank N. Furter, Riff Raff, Magenta, Columbia, or Rocky Horror himself. It's pretty telling that their fan nicknames are Asshole and Slut.
A common accusation leveled at pretty much any film starring Keanu Reeves. He's actually pretty good at playing The Everyman, but otherwise...
In the original Star Wars trilogy, many fans consider Luke to be the least interesting member of the cast, thanks to him (a.) being the viewpoint character for the intended audience, (b.) starting off the series as a whiny, inexperienced teen and something of a goody-goody and (c.) being surrounded by awesomely badass archetypes that outshine him personality-wise.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra stayed true to its comic roots. Ripcord is funny and charming, Heavy Duty is tough and awesome, Breaker is lovable and clever, Snake Eyes is a dang ninja, and Duke is... the main character.
The Princess Bride has a colourful and engaging gang of supporting characters, such that Wesley and Buttercup are often lost in the shuffle. While Wesley does get quite a few good lines, and his duels with each of the three mercenaries in the first act are memorable, he basically disappears in the second act, thrusting the crowd-pleasing Inigo and Fezzik into the hero roles for a good portion of the running time. Inigo also takes the role of the action hero in the climax—not to mention having the most memorable linesofthefilm.
Some of the viewers of Julie And Julia were far, far more interested in watching Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia Child, and weren't nearly as emotionally invested in the scenes depicting writer Julie Powell.
Non US audiences were helped a lot by the Julie scenes as Julia Child isn't as well known outside of America. They helped to show international audiences how much she meant to people.
Michelle from the Subspecies series. She's a fairly stand horror film victim-protagonist in the original. She spends most of the three sequels crying and whining about becoming a vampire and being chased by Radu. For two sequels, Michelle's sister drives the plot far more by looking for her. Ultimately, Radu comes off as the Villain Protagonist of the series.
Something that comes as a constant surprise to anyone who studies the Marx Brothers and their movies on a serious basis is how many of them have Zeppo playing the main character.
Frodo Baggins, from The Lord of the Rings isn't really disliked by fans, but he is noticeably less popular than any other member of the Fellowship, and plenty of the side-characters surpass him in popularity as well. Faramir, Aragorn, Arwen, Eowyn, Legolas and Gimli, and even Tom Bombadil seem to get more attention from the fans than Frodo, whose enormous burden seems to make him inaccessible. Sam is regarded by many as the "real hero" of the story, and Tolkien was not unreceptive to the idea either.
K.A. Applegate once suggested this was true of Jake from Animorphs: while the other characters had clear, definable traits that made them easy to identify (Marco's ruthlessness, Rachel's bloodlust, Cassie's empathy, Ax's alienness, Tobias' conflicted nature as a hawk and a human) Jake had the dubious honor of being the "normal" one. Late into the series, it's made up for when he grows into the role of The Chessmaster. He also pretty quickly develops a serious complex regarding his leadership qualities. In many ways, he's like Cyclops, only without as much fan-hate.
Fans and detractors of Twilight seem to mostly agree that Bella, who's specifically written so that the reader can step into her shoes, lacks a personality and is generally boring, especially when you compare her backstory (Cool Loser moves from Phoenix to a small town in Washington, becomes popular, falls in love with supernatural beings) with that of Carlisle (devout Christian vampire hunter becomes vampire, spends his life helping people even though they're his natural prey), Rosalie (girl becomes a vampire after being raped and left for dead by her fiance, kills him), Jasper (ex-Confederate soldier and some of his friends raise a vampire army), or... well, almost anyone else in the series, really.
Many readers of The House of Night series find the side characters more interesting than the protagonist Zoey, especially when they're shown to actually get things done and undergo significant Character Development while Zoey angsts about her Unwanted Harem and comes across as an indecisive, weak-willed character who makes poor decisions, can't control her hormones or stick to one boyfriend to save her life, and appears to have been chosen to be the next High Priestess only Because The Plot Says So.
Many fans of the Black Dagger Brotherhood continue reading to find out what happens to the side characters, who then become the main characters and are less interesting than the side characters in the new story, who then become... and repeat.
Some books in the Troubleshooter series have this issue, though fans argue about which books this applies to.
He soon realised that other characters — namely Vimes — were much more interesting, and it's obvious at what point he did; almost as soon as Carrot gets to Ankh-Morpork, Vimes becomes the main character of the book and is the focus of all the later Watch books.
In any novel by Simon R. Green, there's a good chance of the hero being this. This is less a fault of the characters, as, for example, John Taylor is an interesting character in his own right, it's just that Dead Boy, Razor Eddie, Suzie Shooter, and Julian Advent are far more interesting.
In The Heroes of Olympus (the sequel series to the Percy Jackson books) introduces Jason Grace as the new hero and leader. The first book spends a lot of time telling readers how powerful and good looking he is but gives no original character traits. The fact he's lost his memory and is replacing the beloved (and much more interesting) Percy, doesn't help.
Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels: It seems that as the series goes on, the characters who are not the main characters become more interesting. This could be due to the fact that the main characters remain pretty much the same as the series goes on, while everyone else gets affected by their actions and react to them in different ways.
Community has this issue. With Troy, Abed and Annie all becoming an Ensemble Darkhorse, Jeff Winger has been left behind by the fandom, although he's not really The Scrappy - Pierce gets that dubious honour.
Dobie Gillis. The show was named for a Dobie, but he was just an average guy, a Straight Man who had an odd friend named Maynard G. Krebbs, a beatnick who was always getting into madcap situations. Dobie never did anything, really, except tell the audience Maynard stories.
The eponymous character of Doogie Howser, M.D. was the clear main character for the entire course of the show, but he became less and less prominent as time went on. As he matured, he was able to sidestep most problems; the writers realized that sitcoms were reliant on crazy situations, but Doogie was too smart to ever get stuck in them in the first place. By the fourth season, he was still the title character, but none of the plots were about him anymore — they were about the troubles of people around him, particularly his best friend Vinnie.
Oz avoids this trope by making the narrator, Augustus Hill, a minor character and perhaps the most sympathetic in the series, and by otherwise having Loads and Loads of Characters.
A noticeable problem in Dollhouse, where a major point of the series (season one especially) is that Echo slowly develops a personality after having been repeatedly mind-wiped. This makes it hard for her to compete with the side characters who already had fascinating personalities, or even her fellow Dolls Sierra and Victor, who managed to have character development early on via their romance. By the end of season one she became more interesting, especially since Victor and Sierra repeatedly had the same character development while she moved on, but season two managed to go in the precise opposite direction by making her so super-special-awesome (while constantly waxing lyrical about her) that it bordered on Canon Sue. Her original personality, Granola Girl Caroline, didn't help a bit.
Whedon, again, in Angel. Angel himself often came off as bland and depressed all the time, while his "sidekicks" Wesley, Fred, Gunn, Spike, Doyle, and especially Cordelia had far, far more interesting characters and dialogue.
In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the eponymous character turned out to be the least interesting of the bunch. It doesn't help that she was sharing screentime with Robot GirlCameron and Time Traveling Terrorist VigilanteDerek. Mostly, Sarah was important because John would be important, but that meant that both of them couldn't be important at once. The more John becomesThe Chosen One, the more Sarah becomes just another sidekick... and in this case, in the face of all the tremendous BadAssery all around her, that means becoming The Chick again. Despite the precedents from the first film, the writers never figured out how to let Sarah Connor turn back into The Chick and make it work.
This was a serious problem for Star Trek: The Original Series. While all of the seven-plus main characters could support a story, Kirk was conceived as the star, and Shatner aggressively campaigned for more screen time. Attempts to rotate the secondary characters into the spotlight (e.g., doing Kirk-and-Spock episodes, Kirk-and-Scotty episodes, Kirk-and-Sulu episodes, etc.) failed because Spock was so darn popular, and the Kirk-Spock-McCoyPower Trio dynamic worked so well.
Serena is generally treated as the main character on Gossip Girl while the fans complain that they want to see more of Blair and Chuck... even though they do. (Season five was all about Blair to the virtual exclusion of Serena, and proved how true the saying "Be careful what you wish for; you might get it" is.)
Finn and Rachel from Glee. For starters, many fans were unimpressed that a show that values racial and sexual diversity has a straight white couple as its teen leads. It doesn't help that Will blatantly plays favorites with the two of them when the other kids are just as talented or more (not hard to do in Finn's case). Granted, Rachel's spotlight-hogging and Finn's weak vocals have become significant plot points within the show, but many fans feel their relationship has become a Romantic Plot Tumor.
It's rather sad that Lea Thompson became the least interesting character in her own vehicle, Caroline in the City.
iCarly: Carly and Miranda Cosgrove suffer from this, mostly by virtue of Carly usually playing the straight woman to Sam and Spencer; with Sam and Freddie being part of the Seddie ship, and Gibby the current Ensemble Dark Horse, it appears in some fan forums that she is the least popular character. Carly gets accused by fan haters of being boring, a 'waste of space', and 'the worst thing about the show'.
Tori, from sister show Victorious, suffers this but in the opposite way. Instead of being boring, she's done things like kiss the two other main female characters' boyfriends, one of which caused them to break up, and caused Tori to Never Live It Down for the other. She also got stick for being the only person to get to sing on the show for quite a long time.
On the subject of Victorious, go to pretty much anyYouTube video with Ariana Grande, the actress who plays Cat, and half the comments are about how she's infinitely better than Tori.
Ally on Austin & Ally is a surprisingly aversion considering how easy a Straight Man (i.e. Ally) lead can slip into this in the kid-com genre. The reasons could include that only Austin and Ally sing, ruling out the intra-fandom rivalry that other shows like Victorious suffer from. There is also no realistic opponent to the Austin/Ally 'Auslly' Shipping pairing, which would cause Die for Our Ship in the event of a lopsided Fan Preferred Couple that does not include Ally. Finally with such a small cast of four main characters, there is no room for a typical overshadowing Ensemble Dark Horse to suck all the popularity on the show away from the main two cast members.
Meredith Grey from Grey's Anatomy is seen as a whiny and self-obsessed load whose only redeeming factor is that she's not Izzie Stevens. Now that karma has finally caught up to Izzie, resulting in her being fired, expect this to hit a lot worse.
An example involving real people shows up in Wheel of Fortune. Pat Sajak may be the host, but it's Vanna White that often shows up in all the board and video games based on it.
Another occurs in American Idol, with judge Simon Cowell being more associated with the show than host Ryan Seacrest.
That might have something to do with the fact that he was the common element between the UK's Pop Idol and the Americanized version, American Idol. Also, the judges generally get more attention than Seacrest, particularly during the first half of the season when he's relegated to hallway interviews.
How many people remember that Richie Cunningham, and not the Fonz, was the main character of Happy Days?
This fact deeply bothered Henry Winkler, who disliked how the executives wanted to push Ron Howard out of the spotlight. He refused to do a Fonz-centric spinoff, and insisted on the rest of the cast getting as much or more screentime.
Outsourced received criticism because the main character was considered boring compared to the rest of the cast.
Especially because the bland white boss was considered the main character while his more interesting, almost entirely Indian staff and friends were relegated to secondary status at best.
Sookie and Bill from True Blood, especially in the fifth season once it becomes clear that Bill has gone insane, yet the show still treats him like the main hero.
Scott McCall from Teen Wolf is often ignored by many of the viewers, especially for his snarky best friend, Stiles Stilinski.
Likely because many viewers are annoyed by his wangst over becoming a werewolf, and his relationship with Alison.
In his defense, his life completely changed when he was bitten and Alison is a hunter whose family wants to kill him. Slowly.
Many who don't like Scott are also "Sterek" shippers, who'd rather see Stiles and Derek hooking up, than Scott and Allison.
And on the hero side alone, Peter is considered the dullest between having an absolutely broken power and just being dumb as a sack of hammers.
The fourth season makes Peter a lot more likeable, with his Character Development finally catching up to him. In addition to this, he lost his old powers and gained the power to absorb one power at a time. This makes fights with him a lot cooler, as they become an exercise in strategy, outmaneuvering opponents, relying on his wits and creativity in addition to the combat prowess that's been Taught By Experience. Considering he's one of the few characters who embodies the mentality of a hero, this makes him a lot more fun to watch. Though he still has Dull Surprise and some bad writing, sadly.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: While it certainly isn't a universal opinion, a lot of people find protagonist Will to be the least interesting character on Fresh Prince. Many find Will to be an annoying and over-the-top Jerk Sue. In addition, many simply find Hilary to be a funnier character, or find Uncle Phil more admirable, or root for Carlton because his status as the Straw Loser makes him more sympathetic to a lot of people, etc.
You say you want things, but you're never willing to work for them. You're never willing to make the sacrifice. You keep expecting to just charm your way through life.
Family Matters was originally focused on the Winslow family, who happened to have an annoying nerdy neighbor next door. Urkel unexpectedly stole the spotlight and later episodes focused more and more on him.
Knight Rider's original series might seem to be this, with KITT overshadowing Michael Knight in just about every way, but if you read the original production notes it turns out this was completely the point. The producers wanted a show with an attractive lead actor who had to do as little acting as possible, with the car otherwise holding the show.
Entourage's Vincent Chase as played by Adrien Grenier is easily the weakest link in the cast (possibly because of how hard it is to be convinced by an unknown tv star playing a movie star) with most of the supporting characters having pretty big fanbases but Vince being generally unliked.
Stefan in The Vampire Diaries. He's supposed to be the hero, but the majority of viewers call him boring and prefer Damon, his more interesting and complicated older brother. It's not really getting better as the series progresses since side characters like Caroline, Tyler, Klaus, Rebekah, and Jeremy are all becoming more interesting than Stefan too.
Elena also falls into this. Occasionally there's a tentative foray into giving her characteristics, but mostly she's the Good Girl who everyone obsesses over for some reason. Her self-described flaw is that she's "too good".
WKRP in Cincinnati had this problem with Andy Travis, who was written to be the Only Sane Man protagonist a la Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore, but was cast with an unknown young actor, Gary Sandy, who was overshadowed by the rest of the ensemble cast. The writers recognized the problem and reconfigured the show so all the characters were roughly equal in importance.
Leonard is the main character on The Big Bang Theory, as the "epicenter of the social circle" and whose interactions with Penny, the pretty, nongeeky girl next door make most of the show's premise. However he's also a Straight Man who is easily overshadowed by Sheldon and whatever the hell is wrong with him. A lot of people fail to grasp that without Leonard to play off of, Sheldon wouldn't be nearly as funny.
Penny had this problem in Season One- she rarely got any funny lines to herself, and a lot of her screen-time was for Leonard and Sheldon to showcase their hilariously awkward selves. She's grown out of this since then, particularly in Season 3 when she starts getting her own subplots that don't revolve around Leonard, but she does have her Jerkass moments as well.
All of the lead characters in the Laguna Beach / The Hills franchise tend to look this way compared to their sidekicks or the villains. In seasons one and two, the plot is supposed to be centered on Lauren, yet it's Kristen who became the defacto lead due to her over-the-top, free-wheeling antics that stole screentime from everyone one else (and resulted in the latter being the first cast member to parlay her role into mainstream success). In the third season, Tessa (and Racquel) look ineffectual compared to the scheming Kendra and Cami (whose storyline are often much more interesting). In Newport Harbor, Chrissy is the protagonist, but her only storyline is a disapproving father who gets in the way of her dating, while Allie (the villain) gets an entire character arc where she learns that money isn't everything, and has to take charge so she won't rely on her parents. In The Hills, Lauren takes a backseat to Heidi and Audrina's antics, and in The City, the straight-laced Whitney looks bland compared to Olivia and co-workers Erin and Roxy.
Game Of Thrones has this issue with regards to Robb Stark. The TV series greatly increases his screentime by making him a viewpoint character, whereas he is only viewed through the eyes of other characters in the books. This increased focus has been at the expense of Catelyn's character by making her more of a supporting player to Robb. Many fans have also noted that by aging up Robb (played by Richard Madden, who is in his mid-20s) in the series, he is more like a Ned Stark 2.0 and almost all of the boy-king aspects of Robb's character have been cut out.
Arguably this became the case for the four main characters (Merlin, Arthur, Morgana and Guinevere) in the final two series of Merlin, all thanks to the writers' inexplicable reluctance to move their character development forward or explore aspects of the storyline that would have facilitated said development (namely, Merlin revealing his magical powers to the other three).
Bohannon in Hell On Wheels. His search for revenge is initially the pivotal plot point, but it quickly stagnates while other characters develop. He remains an important character, but gets relatively little screentime - even being completely absent in a few episodes.
Smash has this problem with Karen. Although she does undeniably have a big voice, she's a pretty generic actress and weak personality, yet all the characters rave about her having that "it" (to the point of one calling her his muse); made even worse by the fact that her rival Ivy has an equally strong voice (arguably one more suited for Broadway-style music) and much more complexity both as an actress and a character. Which makes it hard when, in the Season 1 finale, she gets the role of Marilyn and we're supposed to be glad for her, but instead only wonder what she actually did to deserve this. It doesn't help that while Karen is played by inexperienced actress Katharine McPhee, who has no Broadway experience, Ivy is played by Megan Hilty, who has headlined two Tony-nominated Broadway musicals, Wicked and 9 to 5.
In Scrubs, despite Lucy taking over as the main character in Series 9, many fans found her to be the least interesting character, in part due to her learning lessons the audience had already gone through with J.D. Despite Series 9 being typically considered the worst series of the show, some felt that the burgeoning relationship between Drew and Denise proved to be the highlight and wondered why those characters weren't the focal characters, particularly since their B-Plots often eclipsed the main one.
Jenny in Call The Midwife, likely because many of the other characters were only lightly sketched in the source books and received considerable Adaptation Expansion as a result. She's likable enough, but really more of a lens through which we get to see, among others, the deeply hilarious Sister Monica Joan, the lovable Chummy, the lovely and adorable Sister Bernadette, and the concentrated awesome that is Sister Julienne.
LOST had both Jack and Kate, helped by the excessive flashbacks which got more and more melodramatic as time went. While the last two seasons gave the Character Development that got Jack Rescued from the Scrappy Heap and made audiences care when he accepted to really be the protagonist. Kate didn't have such luck, with many thinking that the characterization didn't evolve and despite some good moments she mostly didn't earn her screentime.
Shermy and Patty (not Peppermint Patty, she came later) of Peanuts. The original cast, which also consisted of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and later Violet, had next to no personality, besides Charlie Brown being an occasional nuisance to the girls and Violet being an aspiring homemaker. Once Schroeder, Lucy, and Linus showed up, Charlie Brown grew into the sad-sack we all know and love, and Snoopy began thinking, Shermy was left with little to do and by the mid-sixties had all but vanished. Patty and Violet then took up mocking Charlie Brown, but this eventually became Lucy's role once she got her Plot-Relevant Age-Up, and Patty faded away while Violet briefly became a Rich Bitch before disappearing as well. In short, many of the original protagonists were so bland they barely made it a fifth of the way into the strip's run.
To a considerable portion of the reader base, the Patterson family of For Better Or For Worse evolved into this during the last few years of the strip's original run. Except for youngest daughter April, who is usually seen as the Only Sane Man by these readers, the whole Patterson clan turned into unlikable characters with unrealistic successes and varying attitude problems the size of Ontario.
It doesn't help that April seemed to be The Unfavourite, and that anything she did or liked was automatically bad or lame for no apparent reason.
On the Fastrack creator Bill Holbrook admitted that original protagonist Bob Shirt was this, and that he had to switch focus to save the strip.
This trope is VERY common in video games, often intentionally. Since the hero is often meant to represent the player, many games will give them a minimal personality (or none whatsoever) so the player can project themselves in their place, thus the supporting cast gets all the personality and most of the drama to themselves. Especially prevalent in the case of a Heroic Mime. Unlike examples of this trope in other media, many fans love having this trope in their games and will sometimes complain if the hero has a strong personality, though the reasons can vary from not being able to insert themselves into the role to the strong personality being one they find utterly abhorrent.
Far Cry 2 is quite a notable example of this as the player chooses from one of 12 characters to play as at the beginning. The remaining 11 are found throughout the game, and interact with the player, usually are quite interesting and have distinctive personalities. Then player's character on the other hand becomes a personality-less Heroic Mime. Players probably would find it most enjoyable therefore to play as their LEAST favorite character.
Sora is an interesting case as, while he started out as a clear audience surrogate, he later becomes an audience surrogate with Character Development, who is wily enough to avoid pitfallsthat plaguethe restof the cast. For the most part.note Though that was the fault of a mentor who allowed himself to be tricked and pushed Sora into something that he couldn't fairly be expected to do. Which tells you something about his peers. Defying the Failure Hero traits of other characters has led to a strong fan base, but his odd-man-out status has led to the accusations of Sue-ness. The Japanese are more receptive to Sora than the west, as he is apparently a major videogame icon (according to a large scale somewhat authoritative poll, he ranks among the five most popular videogame characters, sharing the spotlight with Mario and Solid Snake among others).
Warrior of Light in the original Dissidia: Final Fantasy and Lightning in the sequel Dissidia Duodecim Final Fantasy are cast as The Hero of their respective games, even when fan favourite heroes and villains (as well as several characters who got a massive popularity boost through these games) populate the cast so heavily.
Players tend to favor the supporting cast over the title character in games like Mario Kart or Mario Party, because specialised characters are often better in competitive games than Mario.
While this usually isn't prevalent in the main platformers, largely because there is little supporting cast (or plot) to draw attention away from Mario, it is prevalent in the more plot-based RPG games, particularly the Paper Mario games. Of particular note is Super Paper Mario, where Tippi ends up being the one that gets the most attention.
Feelings of certain characters in Valkyrie Profile bounce all over the place; many fans simply see Lenneth, the main valkyrie and protagonist of the first game, as a useful party asset, but otherwise find her trite, dull, and lacking compassion - unless the player gets the Golden Ending in which she breaks face and learns the truth about the valkyries. On the other hand, many of the Loads and Loads of Characters that Lenneth can recruit are also pretty thin. The most intriguing characters to most are the antagonistic yet witty Lezard Valeth, and Lenneth's two True Companions Arngrim (A GutsCaptain Ersatz and Mystina (a sorceress and Lezard's rival).
Street Fighter III's main character is supposed to be Alex, but you'd have no way of knowing that without official statements from Capcom. Popularity-wise, Alex wound up being overshadowed not only by the returning cast members from earlier Street Fighter games, but by many of the newly-introduced characters like Dudley, Yun, Yang, Ibuki, Elena, and Makoto as well.
Alex is a peculiar case in that his stint as the protagonist is widely overlooked despite him having ties to the Big Bad (most would probably tell you that Ryu is still The Hero, which isn't too farfetched considering that Ryu's been integral to the plots of the first game, Alpha, and IV), but he's still widely regarded to be a popular character in the grand scheme of the series. For example, his surprise appearance on the roster of Tatsunoko Vs Capcom was warmly received.
Subverted with Abel. While more or less touted as the face of IV (like Alex, he also possessed a link to the main villain of the subseries), he was overshadowed by Crimson Viper and (come Super) Juri. However, he still has a fairly sizable fanbase and is regarded more favorably than the remainder of the newcomers, who have either received mixed reactions or are outright detested. He's liked enough that while absent in Marvel Vs Capcom 3 with Crimson Viper being there, he appears in Street Fighter X Tekken without Viper and warmly welcomed there, unlike a certain other.
You can't have this trope without mentioning Mortal Kombat; In a World with energy-wielding ninjas, Physical Gods, fantastic creatures, Cyborgs, et all, the most anyone seems to remember about Liu Kang, the actual protagonist of the series, is that he's the Turkey Boy. Shuujinko is also an example.
Mega Man X himself. This is partially justified, since Zero's design was orignally meant for the new Mega Man, but Executive Meddling forced Inafune to create a more familiar protagonist. Nevertheless, Zero became an Ensemble Dark Horse and the one with the more important storylines.
Welkin of Valkyria Chronicles sometimes falls into this. He's the main character and instantly becomes the leader of Squad 7 despite all of his major subordinates being veterans, while this is his first tour in real combat. He's had officer training, but he's mostly in charge because he's the guy who owns the tank. The rest of Squad 7 is notoriously colourful, with three DLC stories centering around secondary characters and one centering on Selvaria. Unlike many video game heroes, Welkin does have a personality of his own, but it makes him less a generic game hero and more a generic romance-story hero, and he pales in comparison to the more interesting, quirky Squad 7 soldiers.
Reimu from Touhou has had some problems with this. It took a while for her to develop much of a personality, and said personality is really somewhat unpleasant. Notably, even the creator seems to somewhat prefer the deuteragonist, Marisa, with her getting more focus in a fair amount of the side material.
While Chris Redfield of Resident Evil is considered to be the main protagonist of the series, you'll never know it from the fans who consider Jill, Leon, Claire, and Wesker more likable and interesting than him.
Interestingly inverted with Sonic the Hedgehog; one of the biggest complaints against the series has been that all of the Loads and Loads of Characters introduced over the years have been gradually stealing the spotlight away from the eponymous blue hedgehog. SEGA has even noted their attempts to maintain spotlight on Sonic, with the most recent titles having him as the sole playable character and with a minimal supporting cast.
Of course, this trope can also be played straight. Some complain that, compared to every other character in the franchise, Sonic has no real personality or backstory.
Alternate media interpretations of Sonic drift in and out with this, especially since a lot of them have similarly large cast ensembles that the story struggles to balance. In Sonic X in particular, Sonic is fazed into the background as the role of The Ace, with Audience Surrogate Chris Thorndyke played more as the show's lead. Neither garnered well with fans over other supporting characters who had more colorful personalities and Character Development. The Archie Comics have similar problems due to having spotlight stealers from nearly every take of the franchise.
Antimony of Gunnerkrigg Court, whose general calm and open-minded approach to everything, combined with her ability to be near-central to every subplot she comes across just by existing and the enticingly vague development of the other students, tends to make her the least interesting of the Court's residents. Less so later on after it's revealed that she's part fire elemental and unknowingly responsible for her mother's death, both of which give her emotional depth.
John Egbert in Homestuck was the first character introduced out of the stupendously large cast and acts as the Audience Surrogate through much of the series, being the kid to whom all the bizarre and improbable game mechanics have to be explained, so he wasn't nearly as well-developed as some of the other characters at first. He's gotten a bit more Character Development now that we can see his actions through other points of view.
Saying this, the greatest strength of both John and Karkat as characters is how well they play off everyone else in pesterlogs. They're both natural diplomats, underneath their respective derpy / jerkass exteriors.
Defied later too. John starts to express his own personality traits once the "main" protagonist role is fractured between himself, Karkat, Jane, and others, while Karkat actually becomes the more unique troll left alive. Kanaya and Terezi are relatively laid back while Gamzee is an outright villain.
Terezi actually undergoes a lot of this in Act 6, as she becomes relatively bland, while John and Karkat received a Character Check to their original personalities.
The smart and refined title character of Keiki fell into the sidelines as the comic progressed, with her mischievous and Book Dumb classmate Beefer becoming the likeliest candidate for the new main character. The year the comic turned nine, Keiki didn't make any appearances at all. The cartoonist has even gone so far as to lampshade her Mary Sue-ness at least twice, and admit in her character bio that her status as the main character is "debatable."
Ash of Misfile has been falling into this for years, thanks to a combination of overexposure and lack of character evolution, to the point the comic openly admits plots are being recycled. At one point, a younger version of the female Ash had a brief scene that ended up making things worse as people couldn't stop comparing the bright, cheerful and proactive girl to the moody boy who does nothing to help the situation besides bitch.
The title character of Homestar Runner gets overshadowed by Strong Bad quite a bit. The creators acknowledge it; even in the intro video, Strong Bad notes that "Basically, I'm the reason you're here."
Many Golden Age shorts gained shades of this due to the traditional "Invincible Hero vs Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain" formula. Bugs Bunny gained popularity for being a more abrasive protagonist than previous stars such as Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig, however as time passed Bugs was toned down and a lot of his foes started to steal the show and sympathy with audiences. Termite Terrace tried to remedy this by making more fearsome opponents Bugs could come off as more likeable against, though since so many were still colorful and popular additions with fans, it was met with varied success. Other Looney Tunes protagonists such as Tweety Pie and Speedy Gonzales had similar effect.
In a sense, Captain Planet. He would probably be considered the Designated Protagonist just because his name is in the title, but he was never characterized beyond being an Invincible Hero who spoke almost entirely in Incredibly Lame Puns. The Planeteers were obviously meant to carry the show. However, the Planeteers themselves usually aren't considered much better, given the fact most seem to have little characterization and flaws; Wheeler is probably actually one of the more interesting ones, because he's probably the only Planeteer that has actual flaws, jackassery be damned.
Josie on Josie And The Pussycats. Despite being the title character, she has the smallest role and the least personality of any of the six main characters.
Link and Zelda suffer from this in The Legend Of Zelda from the late 80s/early 90s. They're technically the heroes, but they're both almost completely unlikable. Link both brags and complains a lot, hates to do any non-adventuring work, and his Catch Phrase of "Well, Excuse Me, Princess!" grates on the ears after about the third repetition. Zelda is shrewish, ungrateful, and treats Link very badly at times; in particular, the episode where she's charmed by another man and refers to Link as "My fri—acquaint—someone I know slightly" makes the viewer wonder why the hell he's in love with her at all. They do both have some good qualities, but these are vastly overshadowed to the point where they're often forgotten.
Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria are supposedly the main characters of the Madagascar series, but most fans just like the franchise for the penguins or King Julien. DreamWorks Animation is apparently aware of this, however; The Penguins of Madagascar focuses exclusively on the latter two.
Peter Pan in Peter Pan And The Pirates is an asshole. He's cocky, wants everything to be about him, sometimes interrupts the other kids' attempts to tell stories or talk about things to brag about himself ("No one cares about your dream, Michael!"), and stupidly gets the gang in danger. While he is a frequent plot enabler due to his actions often setting things in motion, he's rather unlikable compared to Wendy and the Lost Boys, and even Hook and the pirate crew. Interestingly, this is actually much closer to how he was in the original book than most adaptations get.
Johnny Test. Johnny is the main character, but he comes across to most viewers as annoying and unpleasant and a bit of a Creator's Pet. Dukey, his sidekick, is far more popular with viewers, to the point that he's pretty much the only character with anything resembling a fanbase.
Susan and Mary are also far more popular than Johnny, to the point that many percieve them as the actual main characters.
Rufus and Amberley of The Dreamstone are fairly incompetent assistants to the Dream Maker, often losing the Stone or getting captured when lady luck or a more competent ally doesn't hand them the victory for them. In addition their personalities are far more one dimensional and saccharine compared to the Urpneys, who much like the Pokemon example, are often presented as far more colorful and sympathetic characters than the heroes themselves. In many episodes Rufus and Amberley border as cardboard Hero Antagonists.
An occasional complaint issued to Sonic Sat Am. While a fairly effective hero, Sonic often acts like an arrogant dick and endangers the team and pulls the most frequent Idiot Ball moments due to his cockiness (Straw Loser Antoine not withstanding). Many also complain that the goofy Japan-based Sonic seems misplaced in the Americanized dystopian setup, and that the show would have worked as effectively with Sally or another Freedom Fighter as the lead rather than trying to tie in to the games.
Kim Possible: Kim isn't really unlikable, and does become a bit more flawed and relatable over the series. However, it seems that In-Universe and out, she's a bit overshadowed, whether it be by the colorful rogues gallery, or her sidekicks.
Joss Possible: Let's face it, Kim. You can do anything. So facing all those dangers and villains, well, it's just like you say. No big. A fella filled with that much fear always chargin' into action with you? Seems to me that's a true hero.
The writers can (and do) go overboard in making her flawed, however - sometimes it seems like she messes up everything unrelated to world-saving.