Some of the best characters in anime, the fan favorites, are not always the main characters, but are often times the secondary characters. I define secondary characters as those characters who are not integral to a show's plot, but serve other functions such as providing comic relief or just adding variety and color to the show. One way I gauge the anime I watch is whether or not the show has well-written secondary characters. Sometimes, it isn't much fun watching an anime featuring only a single protagonist, especially when you dislike or cannot relate to that protagonist. Hence, I've always found anime featuring an ensemble of characters more enjoyable to watch.
In certain anime which I really enjoy, the main characters have always been unappealing to me. Despite this, however, the secondary characters made the shows worthwhile and fun to watch. An example: Kimagure Orange Road (KOR).
After I watched a certain amount of KOR, I came to dislike Kyosuke, the main character of the show. I've always disliked Ayukawa Madoka, another major character and a very well-liked anime female amongst American fans. Many veteran otaku such as Chuck might call me a heathen. =) I've only seen Hikaru as being vaguely interesting (even though she's cooler than Madoka).
So who are my favorite KOR characters? Kazuya, Manami, and Kurumi (Kyosuke's cousin and two sisters, respectively). In addition to being funny, these characters are enjoyable because they're not constrained to the limitations of plot, whereas the main characters are. In a sense, these characters are more "real" than the main characters because they (the secondary characters) are not as deeply scrutinized. They remain somewhat unknown and just that much more realistic. In addition, these secondary characters don't always suffer the ridiculous problems suffered by the main characters. Secondary characters add color to some otherwise drab anime and often act as comic relief. Look at just about any animal mascot character to see what I mean. To me, the secondary characters are often the stars of the show.
Many of the recent anime produced feature a large number of characters, i.e. El-Hazard, Tenchi Muyo, Ranma, Marmalade Boy, Evangelion, Macross 7, etc. Anime with "teams" seem to more popular than ever. Perhaps singular anime icons such as Amuro, Char, and Captain Harlock aren't as common anymore, and maybe individual characters nowadays aren't being developed as strongly as they used to be, but large groups make for complex social interactions, which is another aspect of anime I look for. For complex character interactions, watch Patlabor's own SVII. Great stuff.
So the next time you watch anime and you think to yourself, "this character sucks," don't give up hope. For every lame main character, there are at least half a dozen secondary characters who will save that anime for you, or even make it your favorite anime of all time.
[12/2/04 Update: For further articles by Lawrence Eng, see his anime page.]