Being a Better Writer: Sidekicks

The original concept for this post, or rather I should say request as that’s what it was, was for information regarding a comedic sidekick. But I’ve decided to expand on that a little for two reasons. First, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Really hard. I envy those who can write comedy, like Adams, Prachett, Taylor, or Korman. It’s a serious talent. The art of regularly keeping a comedic tone, building things up for comedic beats not just every once and a while, but with a regular rhythm? That’s really hard to pull off, to start. It takes a lot of practice and understanding.

Second, because a comedic sidekick isn’t exactly a great point to cover. It’s like looking only at one side of a building. Sure, a comedic sidekick is great an all … but what about the other sides, those other types of sidekick? What about the foundations of having a sidekick at all? What makes a sidekick different from, say, a partner character?

See, I consider these questions just as valid and important to consider as the original question of a comedic sidekick. Also, I can answer many of them to my satsifaction, or at least give a much more concise, clear opinion on things. I can’t really do that with a comedic sidekick in more than a glancing manner. After all, comedy is not my specialty. I can give a few pointers, but that’s a pretty short post.

Sidekicks, however? I can talk a bit more about that. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

What Makes a Sidekick?
So, let’s start with that foundation I spoke of above. What makes a character a sidekick as opposed to something else, like a partner? Well, and realize that we’re moving right into the realm of “this is my opinion on things,” but personally it has to do with the focus of the character as well as how they interact with the story and the role they take.

For example, let’s say we have a protagonist that’s trying to accomplish some objective. Doesn’t really matter what it is for the point of this example, but it’s a pretty tall order. So they set out to accomplish their task, and along the way they have assistance. For example, in several chapters they approach a friend of theirs to help with part of their adventure. Sidekick?

No. Not really. It’s more of a temporary character. Regardless of how they’re treated in those few chapters, that friend is only there for a short part of the story. They’re not a sidekick … but nor are they anything other than a temporary character.

Right, so what if we change that so that they aren’t a temporary appearance, there and then gone as the protagonist goes about their journey? What if they show up a few chapters in as the protagonist seeks help and then sticks around for the course of the story? Are they a sidekick?

Well, they can be. Or they can be a partner.

All right, so we’ve got one thing established here: To be a sidekick, they must be a regular character that’s part of the entire work. They have to be a character that’s there for the majority of the story. But the thing is, that’s also true of a partner as well. Both share that similarity. So, what sets them apart?

Presentation and approach. And again, here’s where I move into my personal opinion on the matter as to what and why these two are different. It has to do with how you write them, and the way the characters interact. So let’s dig into this. We’ll start with the one that isn’t actually under this topic and work from there: the partner.

A partner character is, to put it bluntly, given similar treatment of a primary character—even if they actually aren’t (for example, the protagonist could be the sole viewpoint character and give that to no one else). But a partner character is treated like an equal, in narration, in approach, and by the characters (though that last one can be a little bit flexible depending on plot and whatnot). This is a character who is held to have near-at or equal capability, skill, and talents in some form to the protagonist, and both the narrative of the story and the characters will treat one another in an equal manner.

A good example I can offer that’s fresh in my mind is the two primary characters in Shadow of an Empire. Both are skilled individuals in their own right—highly skilled, in fact. And though one has heard of the other and not vice-versa, that doesn’t stop either of them from expressing both interest and awe at the others accomplishments. Then, as the story moves forward, both of the pair treat one another as equals, deferring to the other as needed but working together as a duo to accomplish their objective. Both trust one another to take care of things, both act as though the other is just as competent as they are, and both see one another as different people but still equals.

Now, compare that approach to the sidekick character. The sidekick is not on the same level as the character they are a sidekick to. They are either less skilled, less capable, less experienced, or, even if they are as skilled, the narrative doesn’t give them the same level of interest. Characters will defer to, not to the sidekick, but the individual that they’re aiding by default.

A good example of this is Sherlock Holmes and Watson, usually from any number of adaptations (take your pick). Most of the time with those adaptations, Watson is Holmes sidekick. Sure, he has some skill with things that Holmes may not be good at (for example, the BBC version goes to great lengths to have Watson be the more human of the pair, often remind Holmes of emotion), but overall it’s hard to argue that the story doesn’t make it clear that Holmes is the more important character. Watson is a tag-along—a needed one, most of the time, but a tag-along all the same. He’s a sidekick. Sherlock Holmes stories are, inevitably about Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock does most of the mystery solving, he gets most of the focus, and even in-universe, most characters defer to him first. He’s clearly the focus.

This is what makes a character a sidekick: A very real acknowledgement, often in the way the story itself, that the character is not the focus, but a tag-along of sorts to another character. They may have their own skills. They may have their own capabilities. But at the end of the day, the sidekick will never shine on the same level as the character they are a sidekick to.

This isn’t a bad thing. Crud, you can have a story where the sidekick is more capable than the protagonist (The Green Hornet, anyone?) but still be a sidekick. Whether or not a character is a sidekick can be as much an element of narrative perspective as anything else (for a good example of this perspective in action, watch Big Trouble in Little China, where protagonist Jack Burton is actually the sidekick, but the entire film is shot with the perspective that he is the protagonist and his buddy Wang is the sidekick while Wang is actually the protagonist).

Basically, a sidekick is a character who kind of gets second billing. Even if in-universe they really don’t. The narrative, the story, the characters … whichever. All will play them as second fiddle. They may even get perspective moments, but they’re never going to be as important or at the degree of the main characters.

Now, one last thing to point out. A sidekick is not a secondary character. A secondary character is a character who is important to the story (say, team members three, four, five, and six of a six-person team) but isn’t followed by the narrative as the focus of the story is elsewhere. A sidekick is different because the narrative does follow them … but at the same time it does so from a perspective that makes it clear that they are not quite as “important” as the character (or characters) they’re assisting.

Okay, so we’ve established the foundation of what a sidekick is. Now let’s look at some of the types of sidekicks out there you can run into as you write. This is by no means meant to be a complete list (if you want that, here’s the TV Tropes page entry for sidekick; good luck), as any character can be a sidekick by building on what’s been mentioned above, but there are some common uses for a sidekick that you’ll see in any type of storytelling experience. So let’s talk about a few.

The Watson
This type of sidekick is actually surprisingly common, but that’s because it makes easier a narrative issue that a lot of writers run into.

Effectively, the Watson is a sidekick type who is written to ask the same questions that the reader will most likely be asking so that the protagonist character(s) can, with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge, address that same question and provide a bit of exposition. Obviously, the title of this particular sidekick type runs back to Watson from Sherlock Holmes, who would often inquire from Holmes as to the nature of an event, crime, or other bit of the story in order for Holmes to address him and explain it—thereby explaining the information to the audience as well.

Obviously this is a level upwards from “Main and Butler” dialogue or the dreaded “As you know …” It effectively allows your protagonist to deliver exposition and important information to the audience without directly addressing them, which can be helpful and ease the pain of “How do I explain this to my readers?”

So, how do you go about writing a Watson? Pretty easy, actually. Just create a sidekick character that doesn’t know a lot of the same information that your reader would, and then let them ask questions at the appropriate time.

Okay, so it’s not that easy. There are some drawbacks to this approach. The first is that you need to come up with a believable reason as to why this particular character wouldn’t know the information you need to convey—and the more basic the information, the riskier this can become to effect. When this goes too far, you end up with a character who can become, in essence, and unbelievable moron that doesn’t understand or comprehend even the most basic parts of the world they live in.

Worse, while a Q&A can be way to explain things to the reader, it can get tiresome after a while. In fact, there was a fantasy book I read not too long ago that suffered from this exact problem. There were three main “parties” of characters involved in this adventure, and each group had a character that was out of their element by design, choice, or accident. The result was that there was a Watson in every chapter, always asking questions, and always providing the sole source of the book’s exposition. This got tiresome. Every chapter, almost, had something new coming up … and with it, the inevitable “Why?” followed by a protagonist taking time to explain it.

In other words, they told the audience rather than showed them, even if it was by a “showing” method (conversation between characters). It got old. It got tiresome. By the end of the book, it was still an alright book, but I was really tired of the constant Q&A moments cropping up constantly.

Something else of note here: A character that asks a question is not a Watson. Going back to Shadow of an Empire, though early on one of the protagonists relies on the other to explain a few finer points of life in the outlands, they’re still not a Watson because the asking of those questions is not their purpose. They’re simply asking them at the time to be informed. While it does fill the reader in on a few things, the point of the character isn’t to exist for that sole purpose, making those early bits more of a “Watson moment” rather than the character existing for the sole purpose of being a Watson.

Understudy Sidekick
This is a pretty common one. We’ve talked about mentor characters before. Well, this flips that idea and comes at it from the other direction. Rather than the focus being on a protagonist getting assistance from a mentor, the focus is the protagonist mentor training their sidekick.

This one is very easy to attach comparisons too. Are you familiar with Batman? Think Robin. The “Boy Wonder” that Batman, over various incarnations, has trained and educated. Crud, most any superhero sidekick could fit this role, because often that’s what they are: an understudy, dedicated to learning from the protagonist and following in their footsteps.

This one is useful because it gives us a couple good narrative tools. First of all, it let’s us show our audience the “puppy petting” side of our protagonist. They’re taking someone less-skilled under their wing, which makes them look sympathetic. But it also gives us a chance to contrast our protagonist’s skills with someone more ordinary, thus showing the audience how capable our protagonist is. For example, a protagonist in a western story will often be an incredible shot, able to drink anyone under the table, etc. All of which is pretty standard for the audience until a comparison comes along, and an understudy sidekick is a great way to highlight that comparison. The protagonist takes them on, and suddenly we have a character who shows what shooting and drinking is like for everyone who is not the protagonist as said protagonist trains them and shows off their expertise.

An Understudy sidekick also, however, can perform a sort of double-duty by taking on some of the role of the Watson, asking questions of the protagonist and getting answers in response. They can’t—or more accurately shouldn’t—become a full Watson, as you’d expect an understudy to at least have some knowledge of what’s going on, but at the same time they can get things “half right” or ask for confirmation of something.

So, this is all well and good, but what about drawbacks? Well, like anything, the Understudy has them, both immediate and long-term.

The immediate drawback is that your narrative will suddenly be saddled with a less capable character, which can be a drag on your story, especially if they’re too unskilled. As much as watching a character learn and grow can be great, too much on the “needing too” part and not enough on the actual growing can be a drag and mess with your plans. If your selling point is an awesome protagonist who accomplishes their goals with aplomb, then saddling them with a character who, if written wrong, will hold them back can be polarizing. Worse, it can induce a genre shift (a lot of badly-written stories will try to play the understudy’s incompetence for comedic relief, and that gets old fast). So you want to be wary of making an understudy unskilled enough to need the protagonists capabilities, but also capable enough that they aren’t hijacking the story with their incompetence.

There’s another risk, though, one that ends up hamstringing quite a few stories that go this route: The understudy must either “graduate” or be incapable of doing so at some point. Too many authors create an understudy sidekick and then leave them there, never letting them (or the narrative) grow past that point.

And that doesn’t work. At some point, and Understudy sidekick has to either decide that this isn’t the life they want and leave, or grow in skill until they’re no longer an understudy but on the level that the protagonist once was. And when that happens, they’re not really much of an understudy anymore.

Is this a drawback? Not if you recognize it right away and plan for it accordingly. And no longer being an understudy doesn’t mean that a character has to stop being a sidekick. They can even grow out of that, however, and into a partner based on your inclination.

But it’s when you don’t plan for it that problems start. No one likes an eternal understudy. It’s a character that isn’t growing, isn’t progressing, isn’t going anywhere. And that’s a character that’ll lose you readers and interest.

In other words, you’re pressed for time using an understudy sidekick. Eventually, they’re going to grow up or give up, and you’re going to need to plan accordingly.

Comedy Sidekick
Okay, this was bound to come up, seeing as it was the question that kicked off the initial topic. This sidekick exists for one purpose and one purpose only: To make the audience laugh. Usually at a moment that will relieve narrative tension (a pacing tool, in other words).

But that’s the goal with this kind of sidekick: To make the audience smile. Or laugh out loud. And while the sidekick may contribute other bits and pieces here or there, their main goal is solely to exist for that purpose.

Except … that gets kind of dull after a while, which is why most comedy sidekicks that are well written tend to have other aspects to them. They can double as a Watson, or an understudy. They can be a dedicated fan, a cynical servant, or any other number of character archetypes that allow them some variety. But in the end, the goal they serve most often, or should I say with the most regularity, is that of bringing some humor to the story.

You can go about this any number of ways. In writing, one of the most common ways to pull this off is to have a sidekick that’s a deadpan snarker of some kind. Someone who will lampshade instances or make funny quips that bring a little levity to the situation. I say these are the most common because writing is a written medium, so dialogue is a natural route to go for bringing some comedic relief into a scene.

But it doesn’t have to be the only method used. Physical humor is always an option (slapstick and the like). It’s harder, as writing isn’t a visual medium, but there are still authors out there that are well-practiced enough to pull it off.

When going for the comedic sidekick, however, make sure you’re not creating a character that’s solely one-note. Not only does this make the character flat, but it also has the added effect of making most of their “jokes” expected. If you have a comedic sidekick that’s only role is making funny quips or providing the humor in any given situation, than any time they appear the reader is going to know that there’s a “funny moment” incoming. As one of the elements of comedy is the surprise, you can see why this would tend to put a damper on things.

Also, if you’re going to have a comedic sidekick, make sure that they’re actually funny. This is difficult, as it goes back to the “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” bit I mentioned in the opening to this post, but it is, unfortunately, a lot easier to write something that is a one-off laugh than it is something that is consistently and on-beat laughter. If you want to learn how to do that, I’d recommend learning a bit about the art of comedy and humor itself so that you can apply it to your writing.

Mysterious Sidekick
Maybe I’m reaching a bit with this one. Like I said, most of these are my own “categories” of sidekick types. As I see it, however, the Mysterious sidekick is one that is actually intelligent and competent, but is taking the role of the sidekick for reasons that aren’t explained up front. Usually this role is either A) someone that is old and wise that may at the same time act as a mentor to the protagonist or B) someone that needs to work with the protagonist but isn’t taking an active role for some reason (which can later lead to a betrayal, sudden reveal, change-up, etc down the line).

Either way, this is a sidekick that, from what the audience is shown, could be a protagonist, but for some unexplained reason, isn’t. Maybe they’re old. Maybe they’ve got other plans in mind. Maybe they’re stringing along the protagonist for their own goals.

The reader doesn’t know, and that’s what makes them the “mysterious sidekick.” Crud, even if the reader does know some of what’s going on, they may not know all of it, which can still lead to the sidekick being “mysterious.”

The risks? Okay, well, to start, done poorly your sidekick can end up looking like something out of a highshcooler’s fanfiction projecy, all edgy and “mysterious” (which, looking at books these days, can probably grab you a massive publishing contract at the expense of some dignity, so whatever works, I guess). But even more trying, a character, even a sidekick, that plays the “mysterious” card is going to at some point need a reveal of some kind that satisfies the reader. Like the Understudy, there has to be some kind of progression, some point where the reader either gets all the answers or a few answers and enough clues to piece the rest together. Done properly, this can make for a fascinating plot piece both outside and inside the story (after all, have you ever read a story where a character knows another is using them somehow and is trying to figure out their angle even as they move forward?). Done poorly, however, you can irritate a reader with a mystery that’s either too obvious or too convoluted for its own good.

Complimentary Sidekick
All right, last one, and it’s a bit odd, but bear with me: the Complimentary Sidekick.

What do I mean by this? By complimentary, I mean a sidekick character who is the protagonists sidekick specifically because their abilities as a character compliment the protagonist. This isn’t a romantic sidekick, nor an understudy (though it can be either), but rather a role that can be something as simple as two friends (one of whom is the protagonist) who work well together. The sidekick’s capabilities and inclinations compliment that of the protagonist’s, whatever they are, and so the two work well together.

Now, this one gets tricky because what I just described sounds like it would be the basis for a good partnership, right? No, you’re right, it does. But remember how I mentioned the narrative focus earlier? And the in-universe focus? Sometimes even though you have two characters that really compliment one another in narrative and in universe, one of those two is given the clear focus, the other becoming a “sidekick.”

There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a perspective choice on the writer’s part. They’ve written a character that could serve as one of the protagonists, but rather than focus on their story, for one reason or another, they’re demoting them to sidekick status and focusing the story elsewhere.

There are a couple of reasons you could do this to a character. Maybe a writer just don’t have a good plot-arc or character arc for the story at hand. Maybe this character already has reached the point the protagonist needs to be at. Maybe there’s not much growth to show. All of these would make for a less-than-stellar protagonist, but as a complimentary sidekick, they’re acceptable “flaws” because the narrative won’t focus on them.

Many More
While I’m going to call it quits here, this isn’t the end to the kinds of sidekicks you can have. There’s child sidekicks, romantic sidekicks … really any character archetype you can think of can be made into a sidekick simply by shifting the narrative focus. You can combine, recombine, rebuild … anything you can do with any other character, really. The only differences being that narrative focus (and/or in-universe focus) and what you plan to get out of your sidekick characters. If there’s anything you’ve taken away from this, it’s that sidekick characters have a purpose of some kind, and are designed as a character to fill that purpose. Whether that’s to deliver exposition to the reader, show the skills and talents of the protagonist, apply comic relief to an otherwise tense plot and pace, act as a mysterious “adviser” to events … or any one of dozens of other reasons without being a full-blown protagonist, sidekicks have a purpose. A goal. Something to bring the reader. A sidekick character is, in the end, another tool in your writer’s toolbox for delivering something to the audience.

Do you need to use it? Well, that’s up to you, really. Go find out.

Good luck, and get writing.

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