In a long running series, people tend to get attached to the characters of old. If you watch a new entry in a movie franchise, people tend to demand that the old characters return in some fashion. If you watch an Indiana Jones movie, you expect to see Indiana Jones. If you play a Mario game, you gotta play as Mario. Read a Sherlock Holmes novel, you expect Holmes and Watson.
But not every character is built to last. Sometimes, when you bring back the same characters too many times, the quality of the product tends to suffer. Take, for example, the Percy Jackson book franchise. Even after the original five books were over, Riordan insisted on bringing back his established characters like Percy and Annabeth, even if the story didn’t need them.
Sometimes, you need to move on. And to do that, you need to introduce new characters.
Establishing new characters into an existing franchise ain’t easy, by any means. Fans tend to be picky, comparing the new guy to the one they already know and love with incredible scrutiny. They tend to come down unfairly on them, wanting to stick to what they know rather than take a risk on something new and possibly interesting. People don’t like change, even if it’s a good thing.
However, it can be done. It takes some serious balls, but you can do it.
First, you can’t have your protagonist be a carbon copy of the old one. They’ve gotta be their own person. You have to make them distinct from the old protagonist while making them similar enough to ease returning players in. Similar, yet distinct.
Take, for example, Nero from Devil May Cry 4. When he’s first introduced, the similarities between him and the series’ previous protagonist, Dante, are obvious; they’re both pretty cocky and they specialize in ridiculous fighting styles. Nero, however, is much more of a punk than Dante. He’s entertaining, but not as goofy as Dante. He is pretty snarky, but he’s generally pretty serious most of the time.
Plus, he nailed the second step of the new-protagonist process: the writers didn’t try and convince us he was cooler than Dante.
A common pitfall of introducing a new character is trying too hard to make them seem better than their predecessors. The writers will try and convince you that this new guy you’ve never heard of is somehow better than the one you already know and love. Unfortunately, this usually comes across as an insult to the old character and the fans who love them.
Take Halo 5: Guardians, for example. This game introduced a new protagonist, that being Spartan Locke. Unlike the legendary Master Chief, he didn’t have any previous games to attach the players to him. So, how did they writers establish to the player that this new dude you’re playing is cool?
Have him fight the Master Chief! And… lose.
Now, this approach can work. Let’s go back to DMC4 and Nero. In that game, it’s made clear in their first interaction that Dante underestimates Nero’s abilities; he literally says it to his face. Later in the game, after Nero’s gotten stronger, he gets a rematch with him, wherein Dante, now fighting a bit more seriously, handles him with ease. Nero may be powerful, but he’s not as strong as Dante. He lacks the experience the protagonist before him got over the course of three games.
In DMC4, this is used as a tool for the story. Nero, being inexperienced and weaker, ends up getting defeated by the bad guy, forcing Dante to step in and clean up the mess. This is a clever little tool to bring Dante back as a playable character while not completely discarding the new one; it not only allows the two to coexist, but it establishes a sort of mentor-student dynamic. We can see that, even by the end of DMC4, Nero still has a long way to go before he can surpass Dante.
Little did we know we’d have to wait ten goddamn years before we got to see him finally do it.
At no point in DMC4 did the game try to convince us that Nero was better than Dante. Halo 5, on the other hand, spent quite a long time trying to do that. It tried to convince you that Spartan Locke was better than the Master Chief, despite Chief’s already established reputation both within the world and within the playerbase.
Guess what, 343? Halo fans don’t care about some dude that you say is better than Chief. Either have a character that is in no way compared to Chief, like Noble 6 or the ODSTs, or just let us play as Chief.
An even better way of approaching a new protagonist’s introduction is to make their journey to earn that title part of the story. Take Goku and Gohan from Dragon Ball. In the original Dragon Ball, it’s all about Goku. In DBZ, the story is much more about Gohan catching up to his father and taking up his legacy. That’s why, at the end of the Cell saga, Gohan surpassed his father and Goku stayed dead. He was to be the next series protagonist.
Until Toriyama caved because people complained. Which is another point, by the way. Don’t cave to fan backlash. They’ll either jump ship or they’ll come to love the new guy. Again: just look at Nero.
The main thing that you need to remember is that you can’t please everybody. Some people will hate the new protagonist simply because they’re new. So, if you’re absolutely sure that you want a new main character for your series, you’ve got to stick to your guns. Don’t back down just because people don’t give them a chance at their initial introduction. Give them the time they need to grow and your audience may just end up loving them.
That, or you can do the smarter thing: don’t introduce a new guy and just end your story with the old one. But that’s not how making money works, so… I’ll leave it up to you.