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COLUMNS: Coffee on the Deck: The Editor's Ramblings on the Writing Life | Crafting Fabulous Fiction, by Victoria Grossack

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Crafting Fabulous Fiction
by Victoria Grossack

October 4, 2012:
A Study in Sidekicks

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Batman and Robin. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern. Achilles and Patroclus. Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Lucy and Ethel. Storytelling -- whether comic book, serial stories, novels, epic or TV -- is full of protagonists accompanied by sidekicks. In this article we'll take at the functions sidekicks serve in fiction, and discuss different ways you can develop them to enrich your own stories.

What Is a Sidekick?

According to Wikipedia, a sidekick is "a close companion who is generally regarded as subordinate to the one he accompanies." Why should you create one in your story?

Sidekicks make dialogue easier to write for your main characters. Sometimes a hero in a fast-paced action story needs no partner for conversation, but often, the best way to convey your protagonist's thoughts and feelings is through discussion and interaction. Without passages of dialogue, your readers' eyes may glaze over as you devote too many paragraphs to internal monologues and thoughts.

Even lesser characters and villains often have companions (when they're on the bad side they're often termed "henchmen" or "lackeys"). The hobbits Merry and Pippin, when separated from Frodo and Sam, still have each other for a good portion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This makes the conversation much better! My favorite example of bad guys can be found in the 1965 slapstick film, The Great Race with the great Jack Lemmon playing the evil Professor Fate and with the just-as-great Peter Falk playing Max. The interactions between the two are hilarious, and the movie would not have worked as well if Jack Lemmon had to be nefarious all by himself.

Sidekicks' Functions in Stories

Besides conversation, how do sidekicks enhance stories? Let's examine some examples:

Narration. A sidekick may serve as the narrator of the story. The best-known example is Doctor Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which Doctor Watson writes down and publishes the exploits of the great detective. By having Doctor Watson relate these adventures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle achieves several things that would have otherwise been either difficult or impossible.

Most importantly for these detective stories, Doctor Watson shields the thoughts of Sherlock Holmes. If Holmes narrated them in first person, or if Doyle used third person, readers might feel cheated. The readers would expect to have immediate access to all of Holmes's observations and assumptions. But if Doyle gave us this information upfront, the mystery -- the main reason for reading Sherlock Holmes stories -- would be gone.

Admiration. Doctor Watson can devote paragraphs to praising Sherlock Holmes for his cleverness. If Holmes used the same number of words to admire himself, readers might find him insufferable.

Normalcy. Compared to the super-intelligent, violin-playing, abrupt and mostly misanthropic Holmes, readers can relate to Doctor Watson. They can have fun reading about Holmes but feel comfortable with Watson.

Humanizing. Although Holmes is arrogant towards many, his kindness to Watson makes him more likable.

Different Point of View. A sidekick offers a chance for a different interpretation of whatever is happening in the story. The sidekick often serves as a sounding board for the main character.

Conflict -- Plot twists -- Setbacks -- Rescues. Sidekicks provide the same opportunities as most other characters.

Developing Your Sidekicks

Like the rest of your characters, your sidekicks need names and traits and possibly even arcs. However, as a sidekick is so close to your main character, a few additional issues require attention.

How does your sidekick complement your hero? Your sidekick should bring something to your story that your hero lacks. How are their backgrounds different? How do their abilities differ? Perhaps your hero is usually optimistic, while the sidekick is pessimistic. Perhaps your hero is a really good fighter, while the sidekick is a great lover. Perhaps your hero always tells the truth, while your sidekick frequently fibs. The choices you make in the development of your sidekick depend on where you want to take your story.

How does your sidekick compliment your hero? Does the sidekick virtually worship the hero, and praise him or her incessantly? Familiar examples include our friend Doctor Watson, and Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings. Or are there cracks in the relationship? How does the relationship change? If the sidekick does not like your hero, then why does s/he hang around? Money? Blackmail? A different agenda?

What do your readers need to enjoy the story more? Humor? Sympathy? Kindness? Witty remarks? Your main character provides certain elements of entertainment, while your sidekick can provide what is missing.

Can your sidekick help your main character grow? The arc of your main character is often a huge part of your story. How will your sidekick contribute to it?

What perspective does your sidekick offer to the story? As sidekicks participate in many of a story's events, if not all, they offer a chance to perceive those events differently. In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins have very different opinions of the actions of Sméagol (Gollum). The different points of view add depth to the book.

Sidekick Opportunities and Temptations

Some authors use a sidekick to retell an old story, giving us fresh insight into the familiar. Homer's epic The Iliad was recast by Madeline Miller as she retold the events surrounding the Trojan War by using the sidekick Patroclus as the narrator in The Song of Achilles.

Sometimes sidekicks threaten to seize control of a story. One of the characters in our Children of Tantalus trilogy is tormented by the ghost of a man he killed. The scenes in which the ghost of Myrtilos the charioteer goads Pelops flowed so easily that we always had to pare them down. Sidekicks should not be allowed to hijack a story -- or if you do yield, you must realize the story has changed, and you need to decide if the sidekick is ready to take on a starring role. I believe that J. R. R. Tolkien finally found Sam more appealing than Frodo and so showed, towards the end of The Lord of the Rings, more scenes through the eyes of the lower-class hobbit.

Alternative Approaches

What if you don't want a sidekick? Are there methods that work? Here are some options:

First person. You can dispense with sidekicks if you write in first person. A magnificent example of this is Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, in which the first person narrator's emotional isolation and self-doubt characterize the story.

Several supporting characters. A second method to avoid having a single sidekick is to create several supporting characters. Some would claim this is simply having multiple sidekicks (making categories of anything in fiction is challenging as so many examples defy being pegged). In the Harry Potter books, Harry has not one, but two close companions: Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger. The series is long enough -- as are the books! -- to fully develop these two as well as many other lesser characters.

Other. In some novels, the author uses multiple points of view and so sidekicks are unnecessary, although they can still be useful. Other works may be too short to allow the development of a sidekick. In still others, the emphasis is plot or action and the author feels no need to concentrate on character development.

Great sidekicks can give your stories depth and open them up to many possibilities. They may even lead to spinoffs that are more rewarding than your original narratives. So, once you have made progress imagining your main character, ask yourself what sort of person would s/he attract? With whom would s/he share thoughts, ideas and adventures?

Column Index

Copyright © 2012 Victoria Grossack
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in publications such as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. Victoria is co-author with Alice Underwood of the Tapestry of Bronze series (Jocasta; Children of Tantalus; The Road to Thebes; Arrow of Artemis; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. On her own she has written The Highbury Murders, in which she did her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Her newest novel is Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery) available now on Amazon in print and Kindle editions. Her latest release is Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a compendium of her columns (currently available for Kindle; coming soon in print). Besides all this, Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.

Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Victoria now offers one-on-one writing classes; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.


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