The Unexpected Heroes in Historical Fiction

As a historical fiction author, my characters are not just figments of my imagination—they are the heart and soul of my narratives, and sometimes, they have minds of their own.

Often, I begin writing with a clear outline of who my characters are and the roles they will play. However, the creative process is full of surprises, and occasionally a character meant for a minor part grows into a pivotal figure, steering the plot in unforeseen directions.

This highlights one of the most thrilling aspects of writing: the evolution of a character who was never meant to be a major player but becomes essential to the story’s development.

The Unintended Influencers

In my experience, these unexpected influencers emerge organically as the story unfolds. Initially intended as supporting characters, they begin to carve out their own space, reacting to and influencing the main plot in ways I hadn’t planned. This isn’t just about a character gaining more dialogue or page time; it’s about how they start to affect change and decision-making in the storyline, often becoming the key to unlocking the protagonist’s growth and resolving central conflicts.

For example, in my novel Masque of Honor, Emily who was initially scripted as a mere bystander unexpectedly evolved. As I delved deeper into the backstory and motivations of the leading characters, I realized that Emily was perfectly positioned to challenge the views and decisions of my protagonist Jack McCarty, acting as a catalyst for pivotal moments in the plot. The character of Emily, originally intended to be a simple foil, became a mirror and a challenge to the protagonist, Jack, embodying themes of honor and redemption that are central to the narrative.

Why Do Secondary Characters Become Central?

The shift from a minor to a major character can happen for several reasons:

  • Complexity and Relatability: Sometimes, a character intended to be in the background comes out with a voice so compelling and a personality so complex that they demand more attention. Their stories resonate deeply, perhaps bringing a relatability that was unexpected but profoundly effective.
  • Narrative Necessity: As the plot develops, gaps often appear that I hadn’t anticipated, and sometimes these secondary characters naturally step in to fill these needs. Whether it’s offering critical information, presenting a new perspective, or acting as the devil’s advocate, their roles become indispensable to the narrative’s progression.
  • Reader Response: On occasion, feedback from early readers or my own re-reading of a draft highlights a character’s potential that I hadn’t fully appreciated. This interaction can redirect the spotlight onto someone I hadn’t initially marked for significance.

Embracing the Unplanned

Welcoming these unexpected changes requires flexibility and a willingness to deviate from a planned narrative. It’s a test of adaptability as an author, but also a thrilling part of the creative process. These characters push boundaries and explore themes in ways that a more rigid adherence to an original outline might not allow. They enrich the story, adding layers and textures that enhance the overall tapestry of the narrative.

Characters that “should never have been” are often the ones who leave a lasting impact. They remind us that in both writing and life, it’s important to remain open to the unexpected.

These characters challenge the protagonist—and indeed, the author—to explore new depths, confront unexpected challenges, and ultimately, enrich the story in ways that resonate with readers long after they turn the last page. As I continue to write, I look forward to discovering more of these characters, welcoming the surprises they bring, and sharing these journeys with my readers.