We talked earlier in this series about developing your cozy protagonist for a cozy series, and about how to construct suitable antagonists. But those two characters aren’t duking it out on their own. Your protagonist needs a cast of recurring characters to help her with her investigations, provide complications in her personal life, and participate in subplots.
The most important function of secondary characters in cozies is to create a community that readers will want to return to. (You may have noticed that the amateur sleuths in cozies aren’t hermits or loners like Jack Reacher.) Readers appreciate the familiarity of encountering characters they already know, and they like seeing those characters’ stories progress. Readers get invested if you do your job right.
As you’re creating your cast of characters, you can lump them loosely into four groups: family, investigation resources, friends/sidekicks, the community at large. There may well be overlap between the groups.
A large family is helpful in a cozy series. First, a plethora of relations, near and far, beloved and irritating, can provide more realistic opportunities for the protagonist to stick her nose into murder investigations. If the crime happened in her brother’s brewpub, or Cousin Elaine is the main suspect, well, a loving sister or cousin just has to investigate, right?
Remember that cozy protagonists don’t, for the most part, come from abusive homes, but other than that, her family life can be about as dysfunctional or Leave it to Beaver-conventional as you like. Dad might be a hoarder, and Mom a ditz, or a brother might be something of a scam artist and a sister be divorced often enough to make Elizabeth Taylor blush. Aunt Petula may be a hypochondriac while Grandpa George has real heart problems. They add texture and conflict to your protagonist’s life. They can be an excellent source of humor, if your book goes for laughs.
It can be helpful for an amateur sleuth to have access to some details of the police investigation into a murder. You might, therefore, consider giving your sleuth a relative, friend, romantic interest, or frenemy who has such access: a cop, EMT, coroner, probation officer, doctor, computer hacker, police department employee, reporter, district attorney, crime scene clean-up worker, CSI, or other person who might be able to pass her a hint on occasion, or whisper about fingerprint results or the like. Alternately, she can have a network of friends who might overhear or observe the actions of any of the above professionals, and pass them along.
Part of the charm of cozies is the dialog and interaction, so you want to give your sleuth someone to talk to about the investigation. All the deduction shouldn’t take place in her head. Bo-o-oring. Best friends are staples of cozy mysteries, but there might be a circle of friends (like a book group, co-workers, neighbors, or customers), a family member that fills this role, a ghost (as in Carolyn Haines’ Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries) or even a pet. (More about pets in cozies in an upcoming post.) This person can serve as a foil for your protag, highlighting her strengths, but also her weaknesses.
Community at large
Your series, especially if it has legs (goes beyond the first three books) will eventually grow to include dozens, if not hundreds of characters. Neighbors, shop owners, appliance repair people, police officers, caterers, teachers, customers . . . the list goes on. They won’t all show up in every book, but readers appreciate it if they meet some of the same people again. Try to make these minor characters stand out via distinctive appearance, worldview, dialog, or other means. They can be as quirky as you want to make them, because they won’t have enough page time to grow irritating with their tics, opinions, accents, or whatever.
Two more things to think about:
- Don’t feel you have to include every character (even relatively major ones) in every book, and remember that readers will forget who someone is if they don’t see them frequently, so work in reminders, especially if it’s been two or three books since the character last appeared.
- Also, keep track of characters from the beginning via a log, Excel spreadsheet, or whatever method works for you. It is much easier to make notes about a character’s appearance, relationship to the protagonist, and function when you create them, rather than to go flipping back through four published books trying to remember if you named the caterer Bonnie or Bronwen, and if she had chestnut hair or dark brown hair.
Have you noticed a lot of cats on the covers of cozy mysteries? That’s because fans of the genre love love love their pets. Win the loyalty of readers by following the advice in Formula for a Cozy Mystery Part 7: Pets.
If there’s a particular aspect of writing cozies you’d like me to write about, please let me know via Facebook!