That Character Who Took Over

Imagination. That’s what writers possess, something invisible and hard to explain to those who don’t have such a gift. Authors have an ability to create worlds, settings, conversation, and even feelings that others can share. Readers find a way to bond with those “people” we’ve created and look forward to the next book, and the next.

I find it interesting that authors can create strong fictional entities who can carry the story, but can be quickly supplanted by a minor character intended to perform some short purpose to push the plot forward, and then depart.

But sometimes this minor supporting character starts to swell up and threaten to take over a book, or series.

Now as I continue with this thought, I suspect I might have written something similar for KillZone, but I’m on a damn tight deadline here (because I got my dates mixed up again and this thing is pouring out) at eleven in the evening, and I don’t have time to look older posts. Bear with me though, because there’s a different thrust this time and it came to mind while the Bride and I were on the road this afternoon.

By my third novel, The Right Side of Wrong, I’d built a small rural world in Northeast Texas back in 1966. The Parker family took center stage with Ned and Becky Parker who are in their golden years, Cody Parker and his (then) girlfriend Norma Faye, who represented the twenty-something crowd, and the near twin twelve-year-old cousins Top (the innocent young boy) and Pepper (a young lady who cusses like a sailor and instigates a number of issues throughout the series).

They were all well received, and reviewers were positive about the characters and series.

Somewhere in the early stages of The Right Side of Wrong (and remember I don’t outline), an old man named Tom Bell showed up out of nowhere. I wondered who he was as my fingers raced across the keyboard. My subconscious had already inserted him into the plot somehow and I was following a dim trail of discovery.

As the story progressed, Tom Bell bought a small house in need of repair, and set about rebuilding it not far from where Top lived with his constable grandfather Ned, and Miss Becky. I allowed my imagination to soar and soon Top spent more and more time with Tom Bell, who showed interest in the youngster and they became friends.

We soon learned that Tom Bell was a retired Texas Ranger seeking peace and solitude after a lifetime of fighting crime. When the plot finally reached the third act, the world around the Parker family went to hell and Tom Bell stepped in to help arrest a few bad guys, and ultimately follow Ned and Sheriff’s Deputy John Washington down across the Rio Grande to rescue Cody Parker from a Mexican prison.

Spoiler alert!

They got Cody out all right, but in the ensuing fight, Tom Bell is shot to pieces as he provides cover for the others to get back into Texas. After an over-the-top ending, the remainder of my ensemble cast lived happily ever after, at least until the next book came out.

There. I was finished with Tom, and had enjoyed this character who came from nowhere and performed his duties with honor and a strong sense of purpose.

Then came signings, and a barrage of questions from readers and hosts alike about why he’d been killed off. I explained those reasons, and for the next couple of years, the verbal assaults continued.

One lady at a signing took me to task over Tom Bell, and said she looked forward to the day that I drowned young Pepper in the Red River, but to bring the old Ranger back!

“All right! I will.”

I checked back and realized I hadn’t killed him off at the end of the novel, but left him for dead, so three years later he returned with a flourish in Gold Dust and the response was overwhelming. Tom grew in successive books, and last year I liked him so much I wrote a prequel to the Red River series entitled The Texas Job, with Tom Bell as the main character.

Set in the early 1930s, we saw him as a young man, and learned what made this guy such a good Texas Ranger. All the ingredients that created this fictional character gave readers insight into his past, and the person they wanted to read about.

I’m getting more requests right now to write the second book in a new series featuring this mythical Ranger. In fact, the novel was so well-received that The Texas Job is a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion Award and I’ve received a slew of comments and emails about that book, the period in time we fondly call The Great Depression, and Mr. Bell.

So here’s my question to you all out there in BookLand. What is that makes some well-written and strong protagonists take a back seat to one who suddenly steps into the open and beams light? How did we do that?

Is it description?



Do they do the things we wish we could?

Did we somehow create our own super hero? And why is he or she more interesting that those characters we started with?

Side note, my daughters say that I’ve written Tom Bell as myself, ten years in the future.

I just wish I was that tough and charismatic.

So whadda ya think? I sure don’t know, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

15 thoughts on “That Character Who Took Over

  1. The world always needs heroes. Especially when it’s crass and cold. I think there’s a hero inside each of us. We don’t always know what to do with it, or sometimes we do but the price is too high. But we all love a character who shows us the way.

    I’m glad you didn’t totally kill him off.

    • It’s because we like to see virtually immediate justice served. When the minor and major characters step up, we all feel a rising cheer. That’s why we love mysteries and thrillers.

      Many thanks!

  2. ❖ “What is that makes some well-written and strong protagonists take a back seat to one who suddenly steps into the open and beams light? How did we do that?”

    ❦ The lightning has ceased, the rain has settled down to a sprinkle, and the full moon rises between tall clouds on a distant horizon. We turn the crank, lowering the squeaky scaffold down into our laboratory from the parapet of the castle high above.
    “It’s alive! It’s alive!” we exclaim, when the creature we’ve assembled grunts and opens its bloodshot eyes.
    “Of course I’m alive,” he says, sitting up. “But the least you could do is get my pronouns right.”
    “Which are?” we ask, taken aback.
    “He, him, you cretin! Surely you noticed my 12-inch [censored] when you put me together🙺 But I’m tired of your ceaseless microaggressions. Get me something to eat right now. No meat! No gluten or monosodium glutamate, either. And make sure it’s local and organic!”
    Yes, we’ve created a monster, ready to lurch through our story, spreading havoc and halitosis wherever it goes. It’s alive in our mind. We know its quirks and foibles, its history, its vocabulary, We know instantly what its response will be to any situation we put it in. Er, put him in.

  3. I’m sure you are very familiar with what Robert E. Howard said about his famous Conan the Barbarian, that the character simply appeared before him and demanded that Howard tell his stories. Sometimes characters do that, emerging straight out of your subconscious fully-formed.

    Tom came to you late in his fictional life. It sounds like, being the hero he was, he didn’t demand you tell his stories, but who he was as a character and what he did drew you. I think it’s the essence of a character, minor though they might be to the story at first, that hints at a blazing presence we have to learn more about, and that’s what drew you and your readers to want to know more about him.

    Something to be savored.

    Thanks, as always, for another wonderful story and post.

    • You’re very kind.

      I cut my teeth on that Texas boy, Mr. Howard, as well as Lovecraft. I read a biography on him and that’s exactly how Howard wrote, hammering out the story as Conan stood over his shoulder.

      As for Tom Bell, I think I always wanted to write about him, and he finally pushed his way through the veil.

      Much obliged.

  4. I have no idea why that happens but I do wonder if it’s because we agonize over shaping our protags and main characters and give less time and attention to characters who are meant to be secondary. So that allows more of an organic, off-the-cuff process as we write those secondary characters. And sometimes they morph into a bigger role than we thought as a result.

    It’s fun when it happens. That’s why if planning a series I give thought to characters I plan to kill off to *try* and avoid a situation where I might regret removing the character from the story-world.

    • Some authors agonize over their characters and stories. As Dale and I discussed above, my characters walk on stage fully formed, so I only on occasion have to season them a little more.

      Maybe they’re folks I knew as a child and filed away for future use.

      I don’t know.

  5. Good post, Rev. That’s how every one of my novels, novellas, short stories and series happened: the character walked up with his or her own version of “Got your pen ready? Hold my beer and watch this.”

    Coincidentally, I just posted an atrticled titled “The Different Types of Characters… or Writers” on my Journal at

  6. Rev, glad you could resurrect Tom Bell–he’s a keeper.

    The male lead in my series, Tillman Rosenbaum, was supposed to be a walk-on in the last quarter of the first book but he refused to leave after his curtain call. He’s a brilliant, cynical, bombastic attorney who’s 6’7″, has a James Earl Jone voice, and says what other people are afraid to say. His paternal grandmother was an Ethiopian Jew and his maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. He showed up with a shipping container of family baggage and secrets.

    If I ever tried to kill him off, I’m certain he’d take the gun away and turn it on me. 😉

    • The only problem with never being able to kill them off is they keep whispering in my ear and I have to write still another book or series….

  7. One of the advantages of writing romance with lots of adventure or suspense is that I always needed a new hero or heroine for the next book. In one scene a secondary character/friend who has helped the adventure along says something that really nails his/her character and there is my next main character.

  8. Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu, had a curtained alcove in his writing room. One night, he envisioned a new character, a maleficent Oriental princess, standing in the alcove. His cat entered, leapt in the air, and cowered, hissing and shrieking, eyes focused on the empty alcove.

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