Zestful Blog Post #198
Here’s a meat patty from my article “Stepping up Your Sidekicks” in Writer’s Digest magazine.
The most memorable sidekicks possess some or all of these attributes:
- They are fiercely loyal to the hero.
- They are different in at least one key respect from the hero: in temperament, class, gender, race, age, etc.
- They possess a strong moral compass (rogues, like the HAL 9000, being the notable exception).
- They have unique, useful skills.
- They’re somehow dependent on the hero, if only emotionally.
- They don’t try to overshadow or be more valuable than the hero.
- They have unique backstories and character arcs.
- They’re too essential to the hero and the story to be killed off.
[Old kicks. Cut and split a lot of wood in these, in days of yore...]
How to do it:
Choose a likely candidate. You can’t go wrong by selecting the person closest to your protagonist: the spouse, sibling, or best friend.
Give that character a reason to drop everything (or almost everything) and follow the hero. You might need to plant an event earlier in that character’s life, like a nasty boss who needs to be told off: “And what’s more, I QUIT!” You could ship your sidekick’s husband out on military duty for six months, or send the kids to summer camp—anything that will plausibly free up that secondary character to step in.
Consider giving the sidekick a meaty backstory. This will help you create a rich character arc for that person. The generic elementary school teacher might be given a major life regret: “I wish I’d stuck with it and gotten my Ph.D.—then I wouldn’t be dealing with mouthy ten-year-olds every day…” Or the dude in the next cubicle might be starting a business, or preparing to take his black belt exam in judo, or recovering from PTSD.
In order to cement loyalty or friendship, plant an event in which the hero does something to save the future sidekick’s bacon. The hero could bail his sidekick out of jail, throw himself under the bus literally or figuratively, or stand up to a bully. Or reverse the situation: Perhaps the sidekick, currently a stranger, saves the hero somehow, which leads to their relationship. The hero can then work to show gratitude to the sidekick, who continues to help the hero.
Keep your sidekick separate from your mentor (if you have one). If you force your mentor to do double duty as a sidekick, you risk disrupting the balance of power in your story—and confusing the reader. This is because the mentor always has higher status than the hero, while the sidekick, by definition, should have lower status.
Leverage conflict and suspense. Sidekicks are great for this. They can make terrible mistakes, thus complicating things for your hero (and themselves). They can bumble into a situation that turns out fabulous. Or they can simply sit and worry while the hero is off heroing.
Throw some rocks along the relationship path. I find as a reader and writer that giving a sidekick and hero some ups and downs enriches the story. Think of it this way: If a stranger walked up to you and punched you in the nose unprovoked, it would be a shocking surprise, but if the person you’ve counted on the most—fought alongside, gotten drunk with—punched you in the nose, that’s a whole different—and bigger—story. If your hero and sidekick experience serious relationship problems, the reader gets to enjoy a row or two, while having the basic confidence that the band will always get back together.
Consider giving your villain a sidekick. A villain’s sidekick usually gets stuck with the label henchman, is typically a brainless thug, and eventually gets blown away by the good guy. However, I believe villainous sidekicks are grossly underutilized by contemporary authors.
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