Laurie R. King’s most recent Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, Riviera Gold, finds the former housekeeper Mrs. Hudson taking central stage, in 1925 Monte Carlo. As you know, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made Mrs. Hudson Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper. SO why does she have such power as a character? SO much, in fact, that Laurie R. King gave her the spotlight. More on that below.
The secret: Supporting actors give your protagonist a community and an identity larger than himself. So here are four types of supporting character, and four ways to get the most out of them.
The Right-Hand (Wo)Man
Whether it’s a Watson narrator or a silent partner, the chief sidekick is there to show the protagonist from an alternative point of view. Snarky and disrespectful or jaw-droppingly amazed, the BFF is a mirror, showing us the hero’s true face through his closest friend. Don’t forget: Watson doesn’t just admire Holmes, he assists, he badgers, and he backs him up with his service revolver. The quality of a sidekick speaks volumes.
The villain of the piece—in a single story or covering an arc of volumes—needs to fit into your hero like the black and white halves of the yin-yang symbol. The hero has strengths? The bad guy has them too, a slightly different set. The hero has weaknesses and fears? What do you know—your antagonist’s skills slip right in underneath them, threatening to flip the odds. There’s a reason why that yin-yang figure narrows down just where its opposite bulges most powerfully: that’s why the protagonist overlooks him.
Cops tend to be communal. Even the lone wolf in a police procedural works within a group structure. Fictional private eyes may have less community than the village amateur sleuth, but that circle of fellow loners, ex-wives, and prickly adolescent children in the cast still provides a lot of background to your solitary PI protagonist.
Occasionally, a writer will find that a character intended for a single story keeps reappearing. (I am told this even happens to the organized outline-writer, not just us organic pantser-types.) In a first draft, people are allowed to wander in and out. In the second draft, they have to start pulling their weight. You may love these babies of yours too much to cut them, but if that’s the case, you need to show the reader in no uncertain terms why they should love them too.
All right, I have this assemblage. What should I do with them?
Write your story—but then ask yourself, about each and every character:
Who is this person?
Where does she come from? What does she crave, or detest—both on the surface and deep down, hidden even from herself? Can you hear her talk, imagine what her walk looks like, know how her house is decorated? Some writers like to develop a sort of bible for each person, others stick to more general terms, but whether in name, looks, personality, or speech patterns, a reader should never be able to mistake one character for another.
How does this character move the story forward?
Does the boss goad your protagonist on, get in her way, personify an awful childhood, make her doubt what she’s doing? Does your hero’s aunt provide a loved person in need of rescue, or a nuisance to get past?
What if this character was gone?
Why do I need this character? Would the story suffer without him? Is there a similar person—in personality or purpose—he might be merged with?
Make them more so
Once all your characters are perfectly clear in identity and purpose, make them more so. If a mother starts out irritating, she should be nails-on-a-blackboard by the halfway point. If a child enters with an air of sadness, by page 100 the reader should feel terror at the doom over his little head. If a character is bland, make him aggressively, suspiciously bland.
Supporting characters are there to move the protagonist vividly through the machinery of the plot, but also to give the story color and life—and to make the reader care.
And if readers care enough—hey presto, here’s the protagonist for your spin-off series!
Who’s your favorite supporting character? In our nook, have you made them special enough? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page!
Laurie R. King is the third generation in her family native to the San Francisco area. She spent her childhood reading her way through libraries up and down the West Coast; her middle years raising children, renovating houses, traveling the world, and doing a BA and MA in theology. King lives a genteel life of crime, on California’s central coast. Her latest novel Riviera Gold is available now!