Writing Effective Supporting Characters by H. Ephron

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a full panoply of supporting characters. There was Dr. Watson, the quintessential “sidekick,” to act as a sounding board; Scottish landlady Mrs. Hudson, to cook and clean and fuss over Holmes; Scotland Yard Inspector LeStrade, to provide a foil for Holmes’ intuitive brilliance, as well as access to official investigations; the Baker Street Irregulars, to ferret out information; and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s politically powerful older brother, ......
Step 1

Balancing Character Traits

An amateur sleuth needs a friend or relative with access to inside information—a police officer, a private investigator or a crime reporter will fit the bill. A character who’s arrogant and full of himself needs a character to keep him from taking himself too seriously, maybe an acerbic coworker or a mother. You might want to show a hardboiled police detective’s softer side by giving him kids or a pregnant wife.

The most important supporting character in many genres, though, is the sidekick. Virtually every mystery protagonist has one. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk. Harlan Coben’s former basketball-star-turned-sports-agent, Myron Bolitar, has a rich, blond, preppy friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood, III.

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Step 2

Tormenting Your hero

Every protagonist/mystery sleuth needs an adversary, too. This is not the villain, but a good-guy character who drives your sleuth nuts, pushes his buttons, torments him, puts obstacles in his path, and is generally a pain in the patoot. It might be an overprotective relative, or a know-it-all coworker. It might be a police officer or detective who “ain’t got no respect” for the protagonist. It might be a boss who’s a micromanager or a flirt.

For Sherlock Holmes, it’s Inspector LeStrade and his disdain for Holmes’ investigative techniques. In the same vein, Kathy Reichs’ forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan has a tormentor in the person of Montreal police sergeant Luc Claudel. Their sparring is an ongoing element in her books. In Monday Mourning, Brennan finds out Claudel is going to be working with her on the case. She describes him:

Though a good cop, Luc Claudel has the patience of a firecracker, the sensitivity of Vlad the Impaler, and a persistent skepticism as to the value of forensic anthropology.

Then she adds:

Snappy dresser, though.

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Step 3

Fleshing out The supporting cast

A supporting character can be anyone in your sleuth’s life—a relative, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, a professional colleague; the local librarian, waitress, town mayor; even a pet pooch. A supporting character may get ensnared in the plot and land in moral peril, or even take a turn as a suspect. In a series, supporting characters return from book to book and can have ongoing stories of their own.

Supporting characters come with baggage, so pick yours carefully. If you give your protagonist young kids, you’ll have to deal with arranging for child care. A significant other? Be prepared to handle the inevitable attraction to that sexy suspect. A pet Saint Bernard? Beware, he’ll have to be walked. Twice a day.

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Step 4

Naming supporting characters

Give each supporting character a name to match the persona, and be careful to pick names that help the reader remember who’s who.

Nicknames are easy to remember, especially when they provide a snapshot reminder of the character’s personality (Spike, Godiva or Flash) or appearance (Red, Curly or Smokey). Throwing in some ethnicity makes a character’s name easy to remember, too (Zito, Sasha or Kwan). Avoid the dull and boring (Bob Miller) as well as the weirdly exotic (Dacron).

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Step 5

Introducing minor characters

Minor characters should make an impression when they come on the scene, just not a big splash. Here’s an example from Devices and Desires by P.D. James. With a flash of description, action and dialogue, Manny Cummings makes his debut:

The door was already closing when he heard running footsteps and a cheerful shout, and Manny Cummings leapt in, just avoiding the bite of the closing steel. As always he seemed to whirl in a vortex of almost oppressive energy, too powerful to be contained by the lift’s four walls. He was brandishing a brown envelope. “Glad I caught you, Adam. It is Norfolk you’re escaping to, isn’t it? If the Norfolk CID do lay their hands on the Whistler, take a look at him for me, will you, check he isn’t our chap in Battersea.”

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