4

I was writing a mystery novel about a detective who is investigating a murder case. The detective has a partner, who is a side character in the story. The partner is not given much of a personality or backstory, and only appears in scenes where they are needed to help the detective solve the case. He doesn't have his own story arc or motivations, and his actions are solely driven by the needs of the plot.

The partner at some point suddenly remembers a crucial piece of evidence that helps the detective solve the case, and at another point he gets kidnapped by the villain to move the plot forward.

Is this a bad thing? Why? I feel like it doesn't make sense to develop that character too much because I wanted to focus on the bad guy and the detective, so I am not sure what's wrong with doing that.

5 Answers 5

5

To discuss the two examples given in the question:

A) The partner suddenly remembers a crucial detail for solving the case.

This risks coming across as an uninspired deus ex machina, and the more generic the partner is as a character, the more so. On the other hand, if we know enough the partner's background and way of thinking, it may seem natural that they remember this thing at this time.

B) The partner gets kidnapped.

If the partner is an established character, the reader is likely to get emotionally involved, and care about whether or not they'll be rescued in the end. If the partner is a mere prop, the scene is going to be much less interesting.

3

The problem with such characters arises when they feel unreal to the readers. In real life, people do not exist who only appear to help another, to be kidnapped, and to have a convenient memory -- which may even come across as a deus ex machina.

It is impossible to tell, in the abstract, whether a given character will come across as unreal, though one who appears in many scenes is more likely to. Also, very little detail may be necessary to establish that the character exists outside his plot device purposes, though beta readers may be needed to test that.

1

Whether you like it or not, modern readers expect a recurring character to have some personality and motivations. Period. You cannot escape it.

That is why in every one of the dozens of incarnations of Sherlock Holmes (or super detectives by some other name), the Dr. Watson sidekick is consistently and inevitably one of the extremely few actual friends of Sherlock.

We do use side characters merely as plot devices, but recurring characters in many scenes are not "side" characters, they are clearly part of the main crew. If we, the audience, see the same character again and again, we expect some personality.

Heck, that is why C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars have distinct personalities, C-3PO is quite a worrier and cowardly, R2-D2 (without saying a word) is disobedient and heroic, risking destruction and defying orders to hack into computers and save his friends.

If your sidekick has no personality, it doesn't come across as "real" to the audience, it feels like a deus ex machina, an unrealistic thing you did just to move the plot along. Which, you admit, it is.

But it is a shortcut that will ruin your story.

The presence of your sidekick must be emotionally justified, if you ever want to sell your stories.

In the TV Series "Elementary", a modern take on Sherlock, we see Sherlock overcoming a serious drug addiction, and Dr. Joan Watson as his sober companion, provided by Sherlock's estranged but extremely wealthy father.

Sherlock tries to repel her, but she persists and eventually breaks through. Sherlock is uncharacteristically in a non-romantic love with Watson; he eventually risks his own life to save her.

Yes, Joan often assists Sherlock, particularly when the crime tangentially touches on some medical issue, an area where Sherlock is deficient. She is trained doctor and surgeon, after all. She can recognize symptoms and conditions of which Sherlock is ignorant. Connect dots he cannot. Know facts about DNA or biology of which he is unaware. And of course be objective about something when Sherlock is emotionally overwhelmed by some circumstance.

Joan amplifies Sherlock's genius.

If you want people to read your stories, they cannot be just intellectual puzzles. Recurring characters must feel like people with lives that are motivated by their own emotions and concerns. It is not realistic for them to feel like automatons, and that unrealism will drop kick readers out of their immersion into your story.

Detective stories are often, clearly, intellectual exercises. But they feel dry and distant as a calculus textbook unless they are embedded in an emotional framework. Especially your recurring characters, even those that don't have to be in every story. (Like Captain Gregson and Detective Bell in "Sherlock".) You must provide them with emotional motivations and lives.

If your Sherlock has a sidekick, the sidekick must be emotionally motivated and you have to show that. They cannot just be there as a convenience for your plot development.

If you are only writing for yourself, then do whatever turns you on. If you hope that other people will love your stories, you have to build the emotional motivations for every character that isn't a walk on (appears briefly in one scene, like a waitress or store clerk), and probably even for some of the walk ons. It may seem odd that you must devote 75% of the story to emotions when you really just want to write the 25% of pure intellectual puzzle solving, but that really is what it takes to sell stories.

1

The depth of a character should be proportional to their role in the story. The more they contribute to the plot, the more characterization they need.

A throwaway character who appears in one chapter and then never again probably doesn't need much of a personality and backstory. But when you have a recurring character who interacts with the protagonist on multiple occasions, then you should probably give them some personality traits to make them seem more like a person and less like a plot device.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that they need an own character arc with considerable character development. Not unless that character arc somehow affects the main plot you actually want to write in an interesting way. But when you can not think of a good way to somehow connect their personal story arc to your primary narrative, then it would probably end up more as a distraction than a contribution. So it is perfectly fine to have a static character who simply serves to support the character arcs of more important characters. That's what "supporting character" means.

But static does not mean devoid of personality. When you expect the character to get kidnapped at some point and serve as emotional blackmail, then you would do good by making the audience care about this character. Putting a character in danger who the audience knows a lot about has much higher emotional stakes than doing the same with a character they know very little. So if you want to victimize a character later, then it is a good idea to humanize them first by giving them a personality and backstory.

0

It's not bad to use a side character as a plot device, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do a wee bit of character development. You don't want the protagonist's sidekick to come across as flat and lifeless. Take a few minutes to flesh them out, and the story will read better.

Try filling out a dating profile for them. Give them a (subtle) personality quirk or manner of speaking. Make up an allergy, a favorite drink, a food they hate, a pet, or an unusual car. Decide on their parent's occupations. Did they have siblings? Are they the oldest? The youngest?

Even if you never mention any of these things in your writing, they will influence the way you write the character, and you'll have a richer story for having done so.

We all have our different ways of going about this. For physical descriptions, my daughter browses stock photo sites and Google image searches until a picture catches her eye and she says, "YES! That's what that character looks like!" Nobody else every sees the pictures, so it doesn't matter who they are or where they came from, and you can always change things you don't like.

I use a personal wiki (TiddlyWiki, in case you're interested) and have a page for each character. They start with basic information, and every time I give them a trait or piece of backstory, I add it to the wiki. This way I keep the work internally consistent and the characters don't change birthdays or eye color during the course of the story.

I know other writers who use 3x5 index cards, but I prefer having everything in electronic form and being able to hyperlink it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.