By Brady Major
When you are creating a protagonist for one of your mystery stories, often one of the greatest ways to discover who they are and how they tick is by applying to the narrative an equal yet opposing force in the form of a partner that challenges and supports them in interesting ways. More than mere “sidekicks,” these partners need to stand on their own two feet as characters in their own right.
With all this in consideration, here’s a few tips to get you started on creating a worthy partner for your protagonist as your wreak havoc on their worlds and torture their souls to an ashen oblivion.
#1 The Buddy System
An equally effective epigram for this first rule would be “Friendship is Magic.” When it comes right down to it, you should be looking to get a lot of utility out of any partner in crime you set your protagonist up with. Partners need to be the vital half of a very crucial operating equation, with your protagonist filling out the remaining half. This is the very essence of teamwork.
Your protagonist’s ally should be the yin to their yang, the peanut butter to their jelly, the chicken tenders to their fries.
It’s crucial that your partner compensates for the weaknesses the protagonist expresses. If your hero detective is so focused on the puzzle while on a case to the point that she always expects something or someone clever to be behind it all, her partner needs to be there to show her that sometimes simple solutions frolic right underneath our noses.
An example of this is the quintessential partnership between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. While Holmes is clearly the dominating presence with his hyper-aware senses and analytical mind that observes scenarios with computer like speed and accuracy, Watson serves his own unique purpose. The good doctor gives Holmes his vital and informed medical expertise on the regular in Doyle’s stories, and his most important contributions have come while off the job.
Watson shows Holmes through their friendship the value of having people alongside you in life. He cracks through the detective’s cold mask early on and stirs the heart beating inside a man who fashioned himself as something of a calculating robot before he came along. And because of Watson, Holmes is able to recognize and appreciate the humanity within himself. Dammit, I’m tearing up over here.
So, while your protagonist’s ally could easily help her on the scene of a dreadful crime where his expertise in forensics or ballistics is a necessity, he could also have great utility in more human moments away from the office as a confidante and source of support, enlightenment, and strength for whatever issues she may be facing all because of you.
#2 Comedic Relief
One of the biggest pitfalls of mystery writing is creating a tone so barren of the light touches that it drowns in its own bountiful stores of cynicism, sorrow and grit.
Because many of the most well known mystery protagonists throughout all of time are banded together by the roughness of their edges and their lack of merits in the science of social networking, a void is left behind that must be filled with sunnier prospects. This is where your protagonist’s ally can come in.
In my own mystery story, I’ve fashioned a detective by the name of James Pendergast as the character at the heart of it all. While I’ve gotten a lot of great responses to his character and how I’ve developed him over time in workshops, it’s instantly apparent that he would be dreadful at parties. In the fifth chapter of my story, for example, he describes himself rather openly as “an on-again-off-again misanthrope, frequent opportunistic anti-natalist, and a full-time textbook antisocial.” Clearly not a fun guy to be around, right?
Because Pendergast was lacking in the softer touches of human nature, empty of absolutely any urges to smile, hug, suggestively wink at or even high-five those in his immediate vicinity, he needed an ally that would offset his withdrawn and dour demeanor. This was where his partner Ferris Archer came in, designed to be a breath of fresh air from the hard-edged world Pendergast occupies. With him I could add a sense of levity to the story through his rather frivolous and laid back personality, injecting the necessary light strokes of comedy wherever they were needed.
If your own protagonist is a lot like Pendergast and you sometimes worry about how much the heavy tone of the story may be weighing on readers, you may get some mileage out of giving your hero an ally that emits a sense of lightness amongst the smears of grays and blacks.
Be mindful of your story’s tone and plan your jokes accordingly. If your last chapter ended with your characters arriving at the scene of a grisly murder bearing the marks of an active serial killer, nothing will help offset the dreariness of the details expounded by your protagonist like a well timed joke made by his ally, who muses that if the suspect behind the killings had a fondness for eating a bowl of oats each morning for breakfast, he truly would be a “cereal killer.” Get it?
Guys, you still there? Hello?
#3 Shades of Grey
I know what some of the more salacious students of pop culture may be thinking at this moment, and I hate to disappoint you, but this next rule will not have me advising you to create an ally for your protagonist who has bona fides in the art of BDSM and can satisfy all their kinks. Bummer, I know.
The shades of grey I am referring to here involve that great concept of morality, the magnificent pillar of upstanding duty and virtue that can quickly become a precipice for your protagonist to come crashing down from.
The wonderful thing about mysteries is that morality is often a defining feature of the genre. By readily exploring the moral flexibility of the worlds you create through a protagonist and the tough calls they sometimes have to make to do what they see as right, their partner can have a similar function. In situations where your protagonist is forced to go outside the bounds of the law, his ally can be the shore that tests the rising tide, calling him out on his bullshit.
For example, say that your hero is trying to lock up a crazed killer for life, but keeps failing. He knows the man is guilty, but without supporting evidence to lean on the man will walk free to kill again. In a moment of weakness, he plants evidence that leads to the killer’s arrest and later life imprisonment. Balancing his act with the untold future damages of the killer, the protagonist made a call and ensured that a guilty man was put away. However, when his partner uncovers what he’s done, she challenges his self-codified morality, despite the fact that she wanted the bastard behind bars just as much as he did.
In your stories, make a conscious effort to strain the relations of your protagonist and partner, addressing the moral complexity of their situation. Make it hard for readers to side with either of them because each hold strong arguments that perfectly justify themselves.
Doing so will allow you to kill three birds with one stone as you craft a story heavy in moral questions of duty and righteousness that contains a deep and interesting duo who become tested and molded by their experiences. And they say multi-tasking is impossible.
Dear readers, I’m curious who your favorite dynamic duos from the literary world are. Let me know what attracts you to those particular pairings of choice in the comments section.