Mystery Mondays: Jayne Barnard on Spicing Up Secondary Characters

This week we welcome multi award winning author Jayne Barnard . First, let me tell you about Jayne’s latest release is Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, and then we’ll move on to Spicing Up Your Secondary Characters.

Maddie DD frontMiss Maddie Hatter, renegade daughter of a powerful Steamlord, is scraping a precarious living as a fashion reporter when the story of a lifetime falls into her lace-gloved hands.

Baron Bodmin, an adventurer with more failed quests than fingernails, has vanished in circumstances that are odd even for him.

While he is supposedly hunting the fabled Eye of Africa diamond in the Nubian desert, his expeditionary airship is found adrift off the coast of England. Maddie was the last reporter to see the potty peer alive. If she can locate the baron or the Eye of Africa, her career will be made.

Outraged investors and false friends complicate her quest, and a fiendish figure lurks in the shadows, ready to snatch the prize . . . at any price.

Spicing Up Secondary Characters by Jayne Barnard

A good character, we’re often told, is loyal, patient, loving… oh, wait! That’s a good dog. Our characters must be more interesting than our dogs, or readers – at least, those who don’t love dogs deeply – wouldn’t stay with them page after page. Received wisdom is that mystery characters (except the villain) should be likeable, relatable, engaging, dynamic, memorable, competent, fully fleshed-out, well-motivated, and a little unhappy.

Is it always true? How many fictional crime-solvers have been depressed loners who drink too much? Are they likeable? Not hardly. We forgive them, and keep reading, because they’re competent, well-motivated, and, on some level, relatable. Maybe they treat dogs well.

Then there are Inspectors Clouseau and Gadget, both likeable and memorable but failing the competence test. They succeed by the competence of secondary characters.

Good secondary characters are a challenge. They have at least some traits of a good lead character, and have to some degree an individualized appearance, personality, and skills. They fulfill vital plot functions. They never, ever become so interesting that they steal the sleuth’s limelight.

They also don’t burn up a lot of word count. A neophyte’s first chapter I once critiqued hit the right marks: a handful of characters individual in appearance, personality-rich, explicated in just a few sentences each. I was panting to see how they would all interact through the coming 250 pages. Tragically, all those well-drawn characters never appeared again. They were so many wasted words from a plot perspective and, worse, they made a promise to the reader that was never to be fulfilled.

Because Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond is a humorous adventure rather a serious mystery, my answers won’t work for everyone. While some of my secondary characters are written as engaging humans, other characters’ appeal relies not on them seeming realistic but on the outright caricature of well-known characters or types.

Caricature is not to be confused with cliché. The latter, by definition, is a trope or trait so often copied that it has lost all meaning. Caricature, on the other hand, starts with a copy but exaggerates or twists familiar characteristics to create a desired effect.

Here’s Maddie’s first sight of one memorable secondary character:

Before the steam grate stood a rotund man in a camel-hair topcoat finished with both a shoulder cape and a wide astrakhan collar of some chocolate-hued fur. In the mirror above the mantle, he was admiring his extravagant moustaches, carefully waxed and shaped on either side of a small, pink mouth. Did he notice her beyond the doorway? No. He merely stroked a finger along one hairy arabesque with a satisfied smile.

Did you think of a certain Belgian detective made famous by Agatha Christie?

Hercule Hornblower has the recognizable features of waistline and facial hair, and also claims to be Britain’s greatest living detective. However, he’s also bombastic, endlessly self-promoting, cannot pass a mirror without grooming his handlebars, and he has a flaw that gives him more kinship to Inspector Clouseau than to Agatha Christie’s famously dapper sleuth. Hornblower is narcoleptic. He frequently falls asleep just when he might learn some fact that could crack the case.

As with any sound secondary character, Hornblower serves the main character and the story. His erroneous suspicions and conclusions help Maddie find correct ones. His incompetence highlights her competence. His bombast and lapses into slumber inject incongruities into otherwise serious scenes. In a novella featuring stolen idols, invisible airships, and eccentric adventurers, an intense conversation or introspection – which must sometimes occur in order for the real sleuth to solve the mystery – might mar the zany atmosphere. A caricatured secondary character like Hornblower is worth his considerable weight in light relief.

In a more serious mystery, a Hornblower would throw off the tone. A less intrusive secondary character might be the dog, who finds the victim’s bandanna just where it shouldn’t be, and then digs up the flowerbed of the one old man who might have answered the sleuth’s questions willingly if he hadn’t had to chase the dog.

Before you ask, there are no dogs in Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond. Maddie’s pet is more suited to airship travel. He doesn’t dig up flowerbeds, either.


Jayne launch headshotJayne is the author of author of the Steampunk Stories:

Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond (Tyche Books, 2015)

The Evil Eye of Africa – a guess-the-murderer game in two acts

Parasol Dueling: An Epistle on the Infamous Hungarian Imperial Rules

Dueling Figures in Daily Life, in A Guidebook to Parasol Dueling – the Brandenburg Variation(Written by Kevin Jepson, with original artwork by Audra Balion)


Next week on Mystery Mondays we welcome Eileen Schuh, Canadian author of SciFi novellas and the young adult Backtracker series.

Thanks for reading…


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