Sidekicks: The Archetypes
- June 29, 2019
From Sancho Panza (Don Quixote) to Doctor Watson (Sherlock Holmes), and from Man Friday (Robinson Crusoe) to Ford Prefect (Arthur Dent), many of the great heroes of literature are accompanied by equally fascinating sidekicks.
What is the Purpose of a Sidekick Character?
In the majority of literature, film, TV etc. the audience is supposed to empathize with the protagonist(s) of the story. There have been some notable ‘loners’ such as Tom Oakley in “Goodnight Mr. Tom” or Silas Marner but these are few and far between simply because it is difficult to make them loveable. It is difficult for the audience to truly connect with someone who is seemingly without friends. Therefore, one of the main purposes of the sidekick character is to humanize the protagonist. Sherlock Holmes without Doctor Watson might seem cold, aloof and an insufferable know-it-all but Watson’s presence brings out a gentler side to his character as well as casting his flaws into stark relief.Providing contrast is another important part of the sidekick’s role. A one-dimensional purely ‘good’ protagonist normally ends up being quite dull and so the most convincing protagonists have shortcomings or limitations just like everyone else. And a sidekick can make up for these failings. For example, Harry Potter can be, at times, quite emotionally headstrong. Hermione Granger in her role as sidekick balances this by being a rational and calming presence. HP is also quite a serious character and therefore best friend Ron often acts in a way as to lighten the mood.
What are the Common Sidekick Archetypes?
Trying to categorize character traits into four or five neat boxes is an almost impossible task. No character should ever completely mimic the appearance or personality of another (from within the world of the story or borrowing from anywhere else in the realms of literature/film/TV etc.) and however extensive the number of categories, you will always be able to find numerous examples that don’t fit in any of them, or who borrow traits from multiple types. However, there are a few broad groupings that do appear time and again, and these are worth exploring:
The Savant / The Brains
As the name suggests, this is someone who is smart and resourceful. Think Velma in “Scooby Doo” or Fiver in “Watership Down”. Their purpose is to provide crucial information to help the protagonist on his or her journey through life. They are also normally rational and cautious (in counteraction to a slightly hot-headed protagonist), and are often portrayed as quite vulnerable individuals. Whilst they may occasionally have a mentoring-type role, they usually have shortcomings that render them equal with the protagonist rather than being obviously superior.
The Rebel / The Brawn
If the protagonist is not an out and out hero (or even if they are), there is often a slightly rebellious sidekick character who tempts them out of their shell. A good example of this is Ratty in “Wind in the Willows”. He shows Mole a world that he would never have discovered by himself and helps him develop into a less timid individual. This type of character might slightly be ‘grey’ in terms of their position between good and evil but generally, their heart is in the right place. Alternatively, the character might just be a sort of protector who is all about the muscles but completely lacking in common sense.
The Jester / The Happy-Go-Lucky
In this category, we have the sidekicks whose main purpose is to provide light relief from the intensity of the main character. Samwise Gamgee in “Lord of the Rings”, Doctor Watson in “Sherlock Holmes” and Man Friday in “Robinson Crusoe” all fit into this grouping to a certain extent. They are the sort of sidekicks that follow without questioning. They are extremely loyal and often help the protagonist’s virtues to shine. In many cases, they can bring a light-hearted, humorous overtone to procedures. But whilst they may, at times, be comical or clumsy, they are usually instilled with a heart of gold and can be the paradigm of goodness
The Reluctant Sidekick
Occasionally, a protagonist may pick up a sidekick who is partially or wholly reluctant in their role. This might be because they are a bit of a loner, or perhaps because they are not completely enamored with the protagonist’s cause. This type of sidekick is often portrayed as cowardly or introspective but often comes good right at the pivotal moment. A good example of this archetype is Eustace from “Prince Caspian” (Chronicles of Narnia). He initially doesn’t want to be part of the adventure but his personality develops during the story and by the following book in the series has become the protagonist figure in his own right
How to Craft the Perfect Sidekick Character
Firstly, it is important that sidekick has a believable relationship with the protagonist. Whether they are a younger brother, a school friend, a co-worker or a neighbor, there needs to be a realistic relationship so it doesn’t simply feel like they have been shoe-horned into the story.
As stated above, a sidekick should complement the protagonist. His or her personality should be similar enough to the protagonist so that their friendship is believable but there should also be key differences that serve to highlight the good and bad points of the protagonist’s character
When creating a sidekick, it is important to remember that they need to be fleshed out in the same level of detail as the other principal cast. Just because they might be someone who tags along or who serves a particular pigeon-holed purpose, it doesn’t mean that their personality can be painted in 2D brushstrokes. Therefore, they need motivation and drive just like the protagonist, antagonist or love interest. And just like Mark Twain accomplished with Huckleberry Finn (who was originally a sidekick for Tom Sawyer), it should be possible for the focus of the story to be easily shifted to imagine the narrative from the sidekick’s point of view. They should have a story in their own right – i.e. no character’s existence should start on page 17 when they just happen to be introduced by the author! – which is not entirely colored by that of the protagonist
Debunking Common Misconceptions
Sidekicks need to be the same gender as the protagonist
Whilst this tends to be the case, it is definitely not necessary for the sidekick to be a boy/a girl simply because the protagonist is. Dr. Who has had plenty of female sidekicks and in literature, Peter Pan has Tinkerbell as a sidekick and Scout Finch (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) has Dill Harris. If there is no love interest between the two, then it should be perfectly acceptable for sidekicks to appear in any shape, size or gender. And on that point, sidekicks don’t even have to be human as demonstrated by Toto in “The Wizard of Oz” or the Luggage in the Discworld series
Again, this is something that often happens to be true, but as pointed out above, a little conflict can be a good thing. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, Arthur Dent is surrounded by sidekicks who have very different motivations to himself and this conflict is at the heart of much of the humor in the book
Mostly, antagonists end up with two-dimensional henchmen rather than sidekicks but that isn’t to say that a baddy couldn’t also be given a supporting cast in the same way as the hero. In fact, many novels/films that play along the lines of good vs evil fall into the trap of making their heroes too saintly and their villains too maniacal. Therefore, a sidekick or two on the antagonist side of the equation could be a good device to help ensure that the villain is as rounded a character as the leading man or lady.
Hopefully, the above gives some useful food for thought as to how to go about crafting your supporting cast. Whilst they might not have the same importance as the protagonist, antagonist or love interest, sidekicks can be extremely useful in rounding off the rough edges of a story. They can add bathos, provide key information or simply extract the hero from a sticky situation by showing off their brawn. They can exist in pretty much any shape or size, and if enough attention goes into the creation of them, they can become just as well-loved as the protagonist.
– A Ghost Writer, Matt Kendrick
Thank you for joining us for this week’s Ghost Authors. Leave us a comment below and tell us what you think. This week’s guest writer was Matt Kendrick. You can follow him on social @MkenWrites.