A fine line exists between making secondary characters memorable and turning them into caricatures, distinctive, but not clichés. Even though the trope of the comical sidekick is common, in skilled hands it still works.
The main character, beset by story problems, may need to retain some seriousness. Even so, sometimes a little lightening of the mood is needed. Strong, funny number twos who retain their individuality include Lewis in Nick Petrie’s Peter Ash books and Juanell Dodson in Joe Ide’s I.Q. stories. I start chuckling the minute they appear.
As protagonists, investigators—law enforcement or p.i.’s—have more freedom for snark and gallows humor than crime victims do, being one step removed from the tragedy. I’ve laughed out loud at John Sandford’s jokes and Tami Hoag’s squadroom putdowns. Knowing how to keep a balance is key. I recall a police procedural where every bit of dialog generated a snarky response from a secondary character. That became annoying. It was too transparently a device.
In a short story, an author may have two or three additional characters to sketch out, and in a novel, quite a few. Giving them distinct characteristics keeps readers from becoming confused. Like the terra cotta warriors, each should be different. Compared to the main character, there’s probably less detail about secondary players, and finding the right broad strokes to convey them is an art. It’s iffy whether to term rough-around-the-edges Nina Borisovna Markova a secondary character, as she’s the third point-of-view character in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Quinn has thoroughly worked out who Nina is and how she got that way. Nina’s behavior, which breezes past “distinctive” into outrageous territory, is nevertheless consistent and believable. And, of course, she’s a perfect contrast with the main character, a sophisticated, erudite Englishman (and Nazi-hunter).
I don’t know how Quinn developed Nina’s character, but I can imagine her starting with the Englishman and constructing a new character who is the total opposite of him in important ways. Then, perhaps, she constructed the kind of background story for Nina that would produce such an unusual person.
My novel, Architect of Courage (available 6/4) has a number of secondary characters that were fun to work out. Colm O’Hanlon is the attorney for the architecture firm Landis + Porter and for Landis himself. He’s a genial guy and affects Irishisms for his own amusement, but he never takes his eyes off the ball—that is, whatever is needed to protect his clients.
Landis’s two principal assistants, Charleston Lee and Ty Geller are very different personalities, alike in that they’re both harboring secrets. Charleston is polite and deferential, a child of the South. He’s steady, deliberate. Ty has a short fuse and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Charleston has to learn to take more risks, and Ty has to learn how to manage people.
Unlike a novel set in an investigative agency, Landis doesn’t have all the skills he needs for what he hopes to do. He’s backstopped by the introduction of Carlos Salvadore, an investigator in the criminal law department of O’Hanlon’s law firm, whose job description involves “heavy lifting.” Carlos goes about his business with quiet efficiency, solving problems Landis doesn’t even know he has. Good or bad, strong or weak, all these characters serve the story. You’ve probably heard authors say that sometimes, a character intended to have a walk-on part take over, and I can imagine that happening! Sometimes it leads to a new series, too.