There’s always been a vogue for lone-wolf heroes in fiction. The detectives of film noir and the hard-boiled authors who created them. The avenging hero atoning for or avenging the deaths of his family. The lone survivor of some plague or catastrophe. It’s a standard trope.
But actually one that’s pretty rare. It’s far more common (to my perception, at least) for the hero to have a partner – a sidekick, a companion. A Robin for Batman, a Watson for Sherlock, A Samwise for Frodo. Detective novels often have the enthusiastic junior to contrast with the cynical old protagonist. So what makes a good sidekick? Or what makes a bad one?
All of the examples above annoy me somewhat, each for a different reason. Sam Gamgee strikes me as the real hero of Lord of the Rings but never gets his due. Robin (and I’m thinking of TV rather than the source graphic novels) mainly exists to demonstrate how great Batman is. Whilst Watson’s job is mainly to say ‘remarkable, Holmes’, and impress upon the audience how much of a genius his friend is. His roles in action are, to say the least, limited.
But at least he’s a fully-drawn character with back-story and a life outside the main action. He has a wife (or wives) and his own surgery. And I think that’s one of the most important things when designing secondary characters; they must have lives of their own. No-one sits around waiting for the call to action. People act on their own volition, whether that’s a good thing or not. In third-person narration that’s not such a problem; the sidekick can actually be seen doing things, taking initiative and generally getting up to mischief. First-person narration gets more tricky. It’s far too easy to accidentally create a world where nobody does anything unless the protagonist is there to witness it. This is, of course, stupid.
Another annoyance of the sidekick is when they’re too stupid to do anything but stumble into trouble. (Very) old Doctor Who is particularly bad at this; the Doctor’s companions sometimes seem to be nothing but wandering-off-and-screaming-and-waiting-to-be-rescued machines. You’ve all watched movies when you’ve shouted at the screen, telling her (it’s – or at least it was – usually an attractive girl who does this) ‘don’t be so bloody stupid – you’re alone in a big scary house when you know there’s a killer/monster/trap so don’t go in there you moron!’ You ask yourself why on earth would this hero – self-reliant, resourceful, charming – would associate with such a prat. Is their ego so fragile that they need the constant reassurance that the grateful heroine provides as she grabs his arm and sobs in relief?
Very few people exist in isolation, and when solitary characters appear in fiction their isolation is usually a major part of the story. Most other people operate in a world where they regularly interact with others, and this needs to be understood by the author. This is especially true in crime novels, where frequently we’re going to have a whole phalanx of policemen in the wings. Now it’s absolutely fine to draw peripheral characters in simple outline; you can’t (or at least it’s not worth) creating a whole biography for each walk-on constable. It’s also fine to start with a stereotype, as long as you overlay it with enough detail to bring it alive. It’s not acceptable to treat them as if they purely operate at your beck and call without some understanding of what they may have been doing ‘off-stage’. This can be as simple as having them grumble if they’re suddenly woken up in the middle of the night to answer the hero’s call, or adding a tiny explanationette as to why they were already awake. And for this to be consistent to the way we see them both previously and subsequently.
You should also avoid having a character whose only purpose is to flatter the hero. Watson sort of gets away with this as the Holmes stories cleverly have him as the ‘chronicler’: his role from the start is that of a passive observer. He’s meant to be an everyman, a sounding-board for the detective’s genius. So even as I beg him to act, to show some gumption and not be so bloody stupid, I can accept that isn’t his role. But that’s been done now. There’s nothing worse than seeing some brain-dead bimbo simpering at the hero’s rubbish jokes just because it’s the author’s secret wish-fulfilment.
Bunter, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, is a far better example of the sidekick. The hero’s butler (yes, I know – but this was the past, when things were different, don’t you know?) is introduced as a purely walk-on character, but as the story develops we find that he used to be Wimsey’s batman in the first world war and has strong personal links to his master. This immediately gives him more depth. Then, as the series develops, so does Bunter. He gets married and takes up photography – back when that meant having a darkroom and clumsy experimental kit. Moreover, he can take an active, often off-screen, role in the stories without it seeming forced.
The other thing to avoid is to go too far the other way. A ‘magical’ sidekick can often seem not too far removed from our old friend deus ex. These creations often have ridiculously useful skills, such as extreme computer mastery, deadliness in unarmed combat or is a word-perfect diplomat. It’s a difficult balance: okay, so Margery Allingham’s Lugg can pick locks. Great – he can get the hero out of all manner of pickles. But the sidekick can’t suddenly turn up and say ‘oh, I solved all our problems. I’ve disarmed the criminal, locked him in a tiny windowless room and, by the way, solved global warming. Turns out it was a con all along’. For us to feel some emotional payoff we need to see the hero do these things.
Unless the whole point of your novel is that the sidekick is really the hero, as Watson has been in several Holmesian revisions of the last few decades. But that just makes the hero into the sidekick, and at this point we’re tiptoeing dangerously into the postmodern.
Some common sidekick archetypes: bolt any two together for your boil-in-the-bag comrade. More than two and you risk overcooking it.
- The muscle
- The love interest
- The saint
- The wild-man
- The personal organiser
- The specialist
- The comedian
- Captain clumsy
- The savant
- The opposite