Friday, 31 July 2009

Three Easy Steps to Transform a Secondary Character into a Hero

I love writing my Druids of Duncarnoch series because I get to play in a medieval world that I love and revisit favorite characters whenever I want to know what’s going on in their lives. But writing a series has unexpected challenges, not the least of which is taking established secondary characters and turning them into leads.

When I sat down to write TIES THAT BIND, Book II in the series, I did three things (two within the first few pages) to transform Aedan into the hero. My method:

  • Step one: Go dark
  • Step two: Show heroic potential
  • Step three: Rip his heart out

Back story:

We meet Aedan in ANAM CARA. He’s the younger brother to that book’s hero, Bran. In the story, Aedan is newly liberated from monastic life and runs amok with magic and sex. As the young, wild brother, he is a perfect catalyst to the events that nearly destroy Bran’s relationship with Liza. But teen anger and over-indulgence aren’t so engaging as a hero—particularly as my heroes tend to be dark-souled, complicated men who commonly confuse what is right with what is expedient.

Step one: Go dark

Five years separate the books. In that time, Aedan grows up, becomes the king’s minstrel and falls into an existence of wine, women and song. He also still misuses his magic. In the opening scene, I had to establish these changes before I moved onto the plot or conflict. The story begins:

Abbey Mont St. Michel, Normandy

March 15, 1166

Pain splintered his skull. The bile taste of wine hit his throat. Aedan groaned and rolled over, careening into something soft and slightly round to the touch. Eyes closed, he moved his hand and recognized the curve of a woman’s back where it angles in, then up.

“Vae, not again,” he sighed.

“Not again? How oft do you wake to find a woman in your bed?”

Too oft. Aedan forced a smile into his voice. “I was speaking of the sunrise, lass. It comes much too early of late.”

“Lass?” Her laugh was husky, rich and full. “No one has called me lass. Ever.” She shifted and rolled over to face him as he opened his eyes.

“Nullo modo!” Aedan jumped from the bed, barely remembering to take the coverlet with him. “Your grace. I am—”

“Do not say sorry, young man, for I am not.”

The duchess sat up and purposely let the sheet pool around her waist. Her smile shifted, turning predatory. “It has been years since I have been ridden with such stamina and skill.”

“I...” For once, words failed him.

Looking as if she found his silence charming, the duchess of a rich, warm region near the Mediterranean combed her fingers through long, copper-color hair shot with fine silver threads. His insides congealed. Alais was the wife of a powerful lord, mistress to the treacherous King of Arles and half-sister to King Henry Plantagenet. He raked a hand over his mouth and turned away. By the gods high and low, what had he done?

“Impressive tattoo. Do not let the king's archbishop, Timothy, see it.”

“Thomas.” Aedan corrected her, now rattled that he’d forgotten about the mark on his back. “Thomas of Becket."

“Timothy or Thomas, he has a sour disposition.” Alais gave a dismissive gesture. “I doubt if he has laughed in the past year. I know he would not find your pagan ways amusing.”


“A Christian man would not do what you did last night.”

Step two: Show heroic potential

Showing character change isn’t enough. However dark and complicated my hero may be, his happy ending must still be realistic. Dangerous, selfish, amoral men do not (and should not) get the happy ever after in my world. So I have to make sure the reader knows that he’s redeemable.

To accomplish this, I made Aedan irresistible to dogs and children. At times, they literally trail him like he’s the Pied Piper. By showing his interaction with dogs and children—how he responds to freely given, if unearned affection—I signal his corruption isn’t complete. Ergo, the heroine (Tess) can still save him from himself. An example:

“Well met.”

He looked down to where a small boy stood, a cousin judging by the tangle of dark, curly hair.

“Well met, indeed. I am Aedan ap Owen.”

“I did not like that song.”

Aedan grinned and leaned close. “I do not think anyone else did either.”

“Play me a good song.”

“What would you like, wee one?”

The boy grinned. “A song about a dragon. A dragon that eats people!”

Glancing around the hall, Aedan tested the strings. “I know a song about such a dragon. Only he never eats more than one or two at a time.”

“Why not?”

“Too many people make his belly ache.”

Letting his mood scatter on the wave of a child’s laugh, Aedan launched into his favorite tale, the ballad of Cuinn, a knight in love with the Queen of Phris. In the tale, Cuinn dies protecting her from a dragon. This time a silver dragon rescued the knight, devoured the royal uncle and freed the queen. Cuinn lived happily ever after with his queen and a dragon named Smudge.

By the song’s end, four of the earl’s five children sat at his feet…and Tess was long gone.

Step three: Rip his heart out

I won’t give the details of how I shred Aedan’s heart (don’t want to ruin the story) but the event leaves him poised between two fates. Do right and he’s happy ever after. Follow his impulse and he becomes irredeemable.

And while the outcome is assured in a romance, my early readers half-expected him to fail. I’d sufficiently shown both sides of him, enough for them to doubt his ability to do the right thing. Which is, of course, what I wanted.

Easy peasy, right? Yeah, OK. It wasn’t so easy, but I ended up with a richer, more complex character because of these three steps. Now the big question: How do you give your secondary character the heroic makeover?

Keena Kincaid writes medieval romances, which should explain why she sometimes spends a rainy afternoon reading the Domesday Book or the Oxford English Dictionary. After careers in journalism and public relations, she set out to write a medieval murder-mystery with a minstrel sleuth. At some point, her hero opted to woo the local innkeeper, and the murder-mystery became ANAM CARAa lucky break for the intended victims. Kincaid writes for The Wild Rose Press. TIES THAT BIND will be released Dec. 18. For more information, go to or contact her at


Lindsay Townsend said...

Brilliant blog, Keena! I like your 3 steps very much and your excerpts perfectly show your steps in action.
You're right, too, about heroes needing to be fully adult and also deep-souled. Who wants to connect with a dew-pond?

Keena Kincaid said...

Dew pond? LOL! Love the image that evoked. Thanks, Lindsay. Trust me, Changing Aedan without changing his basic nature was a challenge but also a lot of fun.

Linda Swift said...

I enjoyed your blog, Keena. It was a learning experience, well organized. Wonderful excerpt. I wish you success with all your books. Linda

Jane Richardson, writer said...

I love this concept, Keena. Definitely something I could use. Fantastic excerpts! :)

Jane x

Savanna Kougar said...

Keena, truly enjoyed your writing style. And I love medieval romances.
My heroes don't usually go quite that dark, so redeeming them wouldn't involve quite as much story effort.
As far as redeeming a secondary character... probably most readers wouldn't want Lucifer utterly redeemed.
However, a person's life, or the hero's life and past, is what I would use to bring him forth into hero-hood.

StephB said...

Keena, what a wonderful post. I love you you outlined Aedan's future story. I think those are great tips to redeam a hero and I'm looking forward to Aedan's adventure.

I do something similiar with Anton Varga, the "villian" in my story, "The Hungarian." I'm currently working on his story in "The Count's Lair." You can find the short story in my port at

Hywela Lyn said...

Very interesting and enlightening post, Keena. I'm currently working on a 'secondary' hero, who lost out before and now I want him to have the limelight - if only I can knock that chip of his shoulder!

All the best with your series, it sounds wonderful!

Chelle Cordero said...

Keena, this was a fascinating post and a wonderful method to utilize.

So far I have only had one secondary character go on to his own story (Tom Hughes, secondary in Forgotten, hero in Within the Law)

And thanks for the wonderful peek into your story - the excerpts were great.

Cheryl said...

UH, you DO know that PETE is a secondary character....LOLLOL Just kidding, I loved the post. It's really something to think about, and I don't think it would be an easy task at all. You are amazingly good at it.

Debra St. John said...

Super post. I'm almost at the end of my WIP which features a character from my first book as the new hero. I had planned on writing his story all along, but it was an interesting experience turning him from a supporting to a starring role.

Keena Kincaid said...

Thanks, Savannah. I agree no one wants Lucifer redeemed. I know I certainly am not up to the challenge. :-) Aedan was tough enough.

Thanks, too, Stephanie, Hywela, Cheryl and Chelle. And yes, Cheryl, I know Pete is a secondary character, but I love him anyway. As I said, he and Aedan would make great drinking buddies.

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Debra. Thanks for stopping by. I hadn't planned on a sequel, and sometimes wonder if I'd have written him differently in ANAM CARA if I had planned his story all along.

Celia Yeary said...

KEENA--the three steps--very clever and creative. And whoop-de-do!, did Aedan get a surprise!Celia

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Why is it secondary characters refuse to remain where we put them? They insist on becoming heroes or heroines and won't shut up.

Lucky for me, my most insistant secondary characters always display a characteristic or two that I can use to morph them; loyalty, humor, a crack in the mortar they've mixed to protect themselves, something. I play on that, using it to chip away at the pre- or mis-conceptions their behavior engenders. In the hands of a determined hero or heroine, transformation begins and progresses because these characters do, in truth, want to be saved. Fear is a powerful inhibitor, but given the right motivation, anything is possible.

LK Hunsaker said...

Keena, I love this and look forward to digging into Anam Cara so I can move on to Ties That Bind. Your excerpts are always charming and Aedan sounds like a hero to indulge in. ;-)

jean hart stewart said...

GReat post. I too have a Druid series (set in more recent times) and brought a secondary character up to a being a hero. I think you did a better job than I did...

Christie Craig said...

Great advice.


Keena Kincaid said...

Thanks, everyone. Jean, don't say I did a better job. I think the process is completely dependent upon how you established them in the first book. Tell me a bit about your hero?

joanna aislinn said...

Hi, Lindsay,
I'm a little behind but glad I caught this. I suppose I'm writing more of a saga but I planted the seeds for a fairly minor character to emerge as hero for book 2. I knew he had potential but he's surprised me in ways I didn't expect, never realized how deep his sense of humor ran. I gave him a few dark characteristics and happen to love the way he's grown and changed. I also like basically 'good' guys as heros though one could hope change is possible for the worst of the worst :)

Thanks for your insightful post :)
Joanna Aislinn
The Wild Rose Press 01/15/10