In team sports, “bench players” can have immense importance in helping a team get through its season successfully. These are players who are (usually) not as gifted as those who are on the starting unit, but who are called by the coach to come off the bench to provide fresh energy and talent, often at crucial points in a contest. Some of these bench players are so good at this that they eventually become better known than those who play ahead of them.
One of the best-known contemporary detective series, the Spencer novels, written or authorized by the late Robert Parker, utilizes bench players extensively. Spencer can call on a variety of capable individuals all around the U.S. whenever he faces long odds in an upcoming crisis. Each of his bench players carries a unique set of skills, enabling Spencer to select one or more of them to fit each given crisis.
All my novels have bench players, too, some of them more important than others. In my most recent novel, A Fearful Thing – the fifth in the Rebecca Series – New York City private detective Sid Belton and his wife, Dr. Eleanor Chapel, are among the significant bench players. They do not play strongly into the story until the last quarter of the book, but at that point they become critical in assisting Rebecca to work toward a solution to the crimes, and eventually toward a successful outcome to the mystery.
There are others. For example, Belton’s partner in their Manhattan detective agency, Jaakov Adelman, a former agent with Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency), comes off the bench to link Rebecca’s group, first, to the capabilities of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and second, through the CIA, to the United States Navy and the power and reach of its warships. Only Adelman, with his intelligence background and connections, could have achieved all of that.
As I approached the two-thirds mark in that novel, I found that only Rebecca’s brother Luke, who is not a bench player, but, rather, a major character in all the books in this series, could realistically intervene when bench player Jack McGriff falls into desperate straits. Luke is a former Royal Navy boarding party leader, and thus uniquely qualified to rescue McGriff and the bench player with whom he is busily falling in love, Marie Campbell. Luke is the perfect person to rescue these important bench players.
And then there is Kazim Deng, a young Sudanese immigrant and graduate student in Washington, DC, who is drawn into the story while driving a taxi to pick up extra money to support his studies. At one point, he finds himself driving three of the novel’s other “good” characters and, having had that small contact with them, is kidnapped and interrogated by some of the “bad” characters, who assume that Kazim knows much more than he actually does. As the story goes forward, readers find that Deng has many gifts beyond taxi driving and, in fact, there are hints that readers may see him in future Rebecca Series stories. If that turns out to be so, he may eventually become a “starter,” rather than a mere bench player.
But bench players, although they are by definition “minor” characters, are usually given roles without which the story could not move forward as it needs to. They are often critical, and sometimes just as much so as the main characters. A broad selection of such characters is often critical in fleshing out the myriad plot details of a good novel.