Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a full panoply of supporting characters. There was Dr. Watson, the quintessential “sidekick,” to act as a sounding board; Scottish landlady Mrs. Hudson, to cook and clean and fuss over Holmes; Scotland Yard Inspector LeStrade, to provide a foil for Holmes’ intuitive brilliance, as well as access to official investigations; the Baker Street Irregulars, to ferret out information; and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s politically powerful older brother, to provide financial and strategic support. Like Doyle’s, your cast of supporting characters should reflect what your protagonist needs.
Balancing Character Traits
An amateur sleuth needs a friend or relative with access to inside information—a police officer, a private investigator or a crime reporter will fit the bill. A character who’s arrogant and full of himself needs a character to keep him from taking himself too seriously, maybe an acerbic coworker or a mother. You might want to show a hardboiled police detective’s softer side by giving him kids or a pregnant wife.
The most important supporting character in many genres, though, is the sidekick. Virtually every mystery protagonist has one. Rex Stout’s obese, lazy, brilliant Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin—a slim, wisecracking ladies’ man. Carol O’Connell’s icy, statuesque, blonde Detective Kathy Mallory has garrulous, overweight, aging, alcoholic Detective Riker. Robert B. Parker’s literate, poetry-quoting Spenser has black, street-smart, tough-talking Hawk. Harlan Coben’s former basketball-star-turned-sports-agent, Myron Bolitar, has a rich, blond, preppy friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood, III.
See a pattern? It’s the old opposites attract. Mystery protagonists and their sidekicks are a study in contrasts. Sidekicks are the yin to the protagonists’ yang. The contrast puts the protagonists’ characteristics into relief. For instance, the thickheaded Watson makes Holmes look smarter.
The place to start in creating a sidekick is with the profile you developed of your sleuth, so think about what kind of opposites will work.