Supporting Cast: Breathing Life into Secondary Characters – Rosie Claverton
Any writer worth their salt knows how to flesh out a protagonist. A crime-solving hero (or anti-hero) must be a three-dimensional creature with strengths and flaws, quirks and history. If you talked about them solidly for fifteen minutes, you would not run out of things to say.
Of course, the same cannot always be said for secondary characters. From the detective’s long-suffering spouse to the killer’s first tragic victim, each person in a novel matters. You may not hear the whole story but, like an iceberg, you must be aware of the shadows beneath the surface.
Within a typical detective story/procedural, there are undoubtedly types of characters that can be relied upon to appear again and again.
The Sidekick, from Watson to Hastings, has always been a staple of the genre. The sidekick, while possessing some feelings of their own, inevitably exists to make the detective look good. This is one of the hardest characters to bring to life, because they are the template for the reader. They must have some colour to avoid being dull but not so rich a character that any person fails to identify with them. The “Hark, a vagrant” webcomic, drawn by the excellent Kate Beaton, captures this difficulty with Watson’s incarnations perfectly, sometimes more dumb reflector of Holmes’ genius rather than intelligent soldier-doctor.
The Assistants are a nebulous group, ranging from forensic technicians to a PI’s “man on the inside”, but the more of them there are, they more likely it is that they’re stereotypes and controversy rather than characters. The Muscle, The Nerd, The Chick. It is therefore a beautiful thing when you stumble upon a well-realised cast of characters. This is something that the CSI group of shows have always been particularly good at.
The Family are vital to any character, either by their prominent presence or conspicuous absence. While we would all love to imagine that we are independent individuals with our own distinct personalities and opinions, we are products of our genes and our childhood experiences. A staple of crime fiction is the father who was the pride of the force or the parent who was a criminal mastermind. When a character is dead or never met, they may become idealised or reviled, only existing in relation to the protagonist.
So, how do writers avoid writing two-dimensional, stereotyped supporting characters? My personal method was learned via StoryForge, which is an excellent tool for any writer, new or established. They have a series of tarot-style cards which you deal to form a character, but the headings can be used to prompt consideration of these topics in general. They are: basic nature, influence of universe, Achilles heel, family/friends influence, driving passion, destiny and obstacle to destiny. In short – where they’ve come from, where they are and where they’re going.
The advantage to the writer of developing the supporting cast is that they may surprise you. A notable example for me was in creating a sister for one of my protagonists – Cerys Carr. She was a sarcastic teen on the fringes of gang culture, who had little interest in her ex-con brother and spent most of Binary Witness hanging out with murder suspects. However, in Code Runner, she wanted to speak, she wanted to move on with her life, and I’ve had some very thoughtful reader responses to her journey. She made the step to main character without me noticing she was doing it.
Who are your favourite supporting cast in crime fiction? Do you invest in the secondary characters or are you only interested in the heroes? Let me know in the comments!