In a fictional world, sidekicks exist for one reason, and one reason only. It’s the same reason any character exist – to tell the story. But the sidekick, like an appetizer, isn’t the main. The don’t carry the ball often, but their place in the story can add much to the narrative, dialog, world building, tone and register. In this post I want to explore the qualities of a ‘good’ sidekick, what traits they have, their roles in the storytelling and ideas of how to write them.
What Sidekicks Are Good For
A well written, three dimensional sidekick can help with back story, allowing the reader to see and hear about things that came before page one without wading through heavy exposition. We see this in Star Wars with the sidekick Chewbacca, where his adventures in the past with Han Solo help shape our understanding of the man. Also in the sidekicks C-3PO and R2-D2. We learn much about the world through their cometary.
The sidekick can represent a culture or social group as Gimli and Legolas do in Lord of the Rings. Gollum, a ‘minor’ character, but with a major goal, provides a talking point for the long and complex history of the ring. What life was like in the past, the roots of the hobbits as a people. He is kind of an ‘anti-skidekick’ to the anti-hero Frodo.
The sidekick can have different values, ethics, goals and motivations, making for a contrast to the main protagonist. Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, for example, hasn’t much of a moral compass. At all. His buddy Alaric Saltzman, however, does, and watching that friendship grow is a measure of the main character’s arc and emotional evolution.
Humor and wit:
The protagonist has to be pretty serious at times, playing it ‘straight’ as they work out how to fight the baddy, retrieve the lost treasure and save the day. The sidekick, however, is free to use wit and humor at times when the hero cannot. We see this in Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Xander (one of Buffy’s many sidekicks) where she can be in deep emotional angst and he can pop the one liner that lightens the moment without throwing away her feelings.
Similar to wit and humor, there are times when a scene is too intense, deep or meaningful and the sidekick can be just the one to lighten it all with a ‘throw-away’ line. Clive and Ravi do this on iZombie when Liv is too deep into the fact that she is dead, turned into a zombie and has to eat brains to survive. It can turn a scene around in a flash.
Freedom of Speech:
The sidekick can say things the hero might be thinking, or wish they could say, but can’t. In the Quantum Enchantment Series, Rosette has a sentient familiar, a temple cat who links with her telepathically. She might be having a conversation with a mentor or rival while her familiar does a running commentary on the whole thing, adding a new element to the scene.
The hero may also relate to the sidekick in ways they can’t to others, allowing the reader to gain more compassion or understanding. This works especially well for main characters that are not fully sympathetic. Eric Northman’s compassion for his progeny, Pam, is an example from True Blood, or Charlain Harrie’s Southern Vampire Mysteries.
Writing the Sidekick
The first question to answer when developing a sidekick in the story is why are they there? They have to move the plot forward, be part of the part of the story. They also have to have their own GMC – goals, motivations and conflicts, internal and external. In a shorter work, these won’t be explored to a great depth, but with novel length stories and series, there is room for these subplots to be woven.
In Lord of the Rings, Gollum is a shadow figure of Frodo, representing his darker obsessions, passions, and also his instinctual side. He knows natures ways, leads them into dark places, with darker designs. Gollum’s inner goals, in the end, aren’t any different than Frodo’s, but he still has his own history, motivations, conflicts, and outer challenges.
Further questions to ask when developing a sidekick:
- How do they move the plot forward?
- What do they contribute?
- Do they have heart or at least evoke an emotional response?
- Are their stakes genuine?
- Is their dialog strong and juicy?
- Are they redundant in any way?
When getting the story down, the writer isn’t usually thinking of all these things. I know I’m not! Still, it’s a useful checklist for subsequent edits.
How about you all? Who are some of your favorite sidekicks?
Writers, how to you approach these types of Characters?
Thoughts and ideas welcome here!