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The term "dark horse" has its origin in horse racing. An unknown horse would be risky to place bets on, compared to a horse with a known track record. Because gamblers would be "in the dark", when an unknown horse won a race, it was called a "Dark Horse Victory." The term is also used in politics to describe a lesser known candidate who does better than expected in an election.

This is used to describe a side character making up part of the ensemble, either a non-lead secondary character or a mere Flat Character, who then becomes unexpectedly popular with the fandom, sometimes even more than the lead characters, depending on who and where the fandom is, as well as what the other characters are like in comparison. For example, the hero is not as popular because they're too much The Everyman. Often, this can happen because the character has very few character traits, which allows fans to imagine what they are. The dark horse can sometimes be viewed as the character equivalent of a Cult Classic.

The writers or producers may be tempted to Retool the work's premise to put them in the spotlight. Sometimes this works, but usually it's a bad idea for two reasons, both relating to what happens when you take a supporting character and move them into The Protagonist's position. The first is that writers often "adjust" the character so that they can fit into a conventionally heroic role. In the process, this can destroy the unconventional traits that made the character a dark horse in the first place. The second is that if the writers don't do this, traits that were entertaining in a secondary character may become grating and unpleasant in the protagonist.

However, it's still good business to bring dark horse characters back, even if they were originally meant to be featured for only a short time. Thus, episodes which do not specifically require a certain character will be more likely to use them.

Occasionally, if an antagonist becomes a dark horse, the writer may decide to have them perform a Heel–Face Turn in situations where the only other option is being killed by the protagonists. However, if the series doesn't have an end planned, it's more likely that they'll just escape.

If the dark horse becomes an important character, they're now a Breakout Character. See also Adaptational Badass, Ascended Extra, Memetic Bystander, Lower-Deck Episode, A Day in the Limelight, One-Scene Wonder, and Unpopular Popular Character. Creator's Pet is the polar opposite, a character who the writer grows fond of, but the fans do not. An antagonist who becomes popular despite the author's intentions is Draco in Leather Pants, which is an example of Misaimed Fandom. The natural extension of this is the Spotlight-Stealing Squad. Major characters who end up overshadowing their castmates often fall under Face of the Band, whether they're the true lead character or a supporting member who ends up overshadowing the lead, à la Darth Vader or Stewie Griffin.

Although this applies to individual characters, as a YMMV trope, it should not be listed on character pages. This seems counterintuitive, but character pages are meant to list tropes audience members can see in the work in question, not fan opinion expressed outside of the work.


Examples:


Alternative Title(s): Popular Minor Character, Boba Fett Syndrome

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