The Writer’s Life from A to Z

Monk has Sharona Flemming. Hercule Poirot partnered with Capt. Arthur Hasting. Sherlock Holmes needs Dr. Watson. These well-known detectives were nothing without their sidekicks. They helped the detectives to be better at everything from detecting to being human. Author Beth Terrell takes on the importance of allies in this month’s writing how-to column.

Supporting Cast: Allies

By Jaden (Beth) Terrell

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about your main character, and we’ve touched on the victim and the villain. Now let’s look at your protagonist’s allies.

No matter how much of a loner your character is, or how reluctantly he plays with others, a crime investigation doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Whether he’s a professional investigator or an amateur sleuth, sooner or later, he’ll need to get information he has no way of learning for himself from someone else. Maybe he needs to identify a fingerprint or trace a license plate? Where can he get that information?

Then, there’s his personal life—perhaps he has a love interest, sidekick, or confidante. Or maybe she has a family that will play a role in one or more subplots.

Via www.123RF.com
Via www.123RF.com

There are several things to take into account when creating allies for your main character. First, ask yourself what needs to be accomplished that your character can’t do. If she’s a sharpshooting martial artist who relies primarily on brawn and charm to get what she wants, and the villain is stalking his victims in cyberspace, then, one of her allies will need to be someone who can help her navigate the digital universe.

Allies can fill the gaps in your character’s skill set and knowledge. Look at the clues that need to be found and interpreted; then think of who might best be able to provide that information. Does your PI need a source at the police department? At the DMV? Does she need access to a computer hacker? An informant in a street gang?

An ally should also be someone whose skills and personality traits complement the protagonist’s. Is your character serious to a fault? Maybe one of his friends or allies can be a light-hearted jokester who brings some much-needed humor to the story. Is the main character impulsive and devil-may-care, someone who rarely takes anything seriously? Maybe he needs someone more serious alongside him to remind him to be wise.

While many allies help the protagonist out of affection or a sense of responsibility, others (such as an informant who cooperates only because the protagonist has something on him) are more reluctant. Each can play a valuable role. Might that reluctant ally end up betraying your protagonist at a critical moment? That doubt can increase tension and keep your reader wondering what might happen. Another way to ratchet up tension is for the villain to threaten someone the protagonist cares about. The love interest, perhaps? The best friend? A family member? A partner whose skills are integral to solving the crime?

Allies can reveal your protagonist’s character traits. For example, my protagonist is a private detective named Jared McKean. Jared is competent and impulsive, a martial artist and horse whisperer. His interactions with Frank Campanella, his surrogate father and former partner in the homicide department, show his tough-guy side. But he also has a son with Down syndrome and an ex-wife he’s still in love with. Jared’s interactions with his son and ex-wife reveal his compassionate side and the lengths he’ll go to in order to preserve a loving relationship with both.

You can also use an ally to reveal a skill or some specialized knowledge your character has. In the second Jared McKean book, A Cup Full of Midnight, Jared recalls sitting at the kitchen table with his ex-wife, Maria (who is an artist), and a big box of Crayola crayons. She holds up a crayon and asks him what color it is.

“Blue?” he asks.

“No, cobalt.” She holds up another. “And this one?”

“Cobalt?”

“Cornflower.”

He thinks, I never knew there were so many colors in the world.

This scene does two things. First, it shows you how Jared feels about Maria—that she’s expanded his vision and opened his eyes to a brighter, more vivid world. Second, because of this scene, when he has to describe a suspect or a witness’s living room, it’s believable that he’s able to use more nuanced descriptions of color.

What qualities do you want to reveal about your character? What kinds of allies will most effectively showcase or explain those qualities? Do you want to show that your protagonist is uncomfortable with praise? Give her an ally who loves to give compliments. Do you want to show his fear of heights? Give him an ally who insists on meeting on the roof of the city’s tallest apartment building.

Once you’ve established what roles are needed, you can begin to fill them. To avoid a cast of thousands, ask yourself if one character could plausibly play multiple roles. Could the sidekick and confidante be the same person? Could she have one or more of the skills your protagonist will need to reach his goals?

Below is a chart that might help you figure out who your protagonist’s allies are. Some of these characters will be more developed than others. That’s fine. Use the questions you’ve learned so far to flesh out each character as much as you need to.

Writers Life Supporting Cast Worksheet

Download or Print a FREE Supporting Cast Worksheet – Created by Jaden (Beth) Terrell

Supporting characters are an important tool in your Novelist Took Kit. Their foibles and passions can underscore your theme, reveal your main character’s strengths and weaknesses, and add depth to your novel. A rich, well-crafted supporting cast can help turn a pretty good book into a great one.

Beth TerrellJaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to “Now Write! Mysteries” (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy. www.jadenterrell.com

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