Ah the sidekick. Dimwitted menace or valuable tool?
Many sidekicks are written poorly and with the primary role of providing comic relief or making the protagonist look good. This sort of sidekick can work in some forms of fiction, but is mostly unsympathetic. But writers are sometimes afraid that making their sidekick competent will make the hero less heroic. Fear not! There are plenty of other ways you can use your protagonist’s sidekick without him overshadowing the protagonist.
1. Providing contrast to highlight the protagonist’s traits
Showcase your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses by pitting them against his sidekick’s. If your protagonist’s best mate is exceedingly kind, your protagonist looks meaner by comparison and vice versa. When Ron was afraid to follow the spiders in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry seemed braver. When Sam hesitated to return the Ring to Frodo after saving his butt in Lord of the Rings, I could reluctantly accept that Frodo was the Chosen One and stop slagging him off so much.
2. Filling in for your protagonist’s weaknesses
Protagonists who are good at everything suck because it makes the obstacles easy to overcome, which is boring. Readers want conflict. Sometimes there’s only one way through an obstacle, so where the protagonist fails, his sidekick can pick up the slack. His sidekick can even point the protagonist in the right direction (even if he refuses to listen).
Harry can be dense and has little knowledge of the Wizarding World, so Ron and Hermione fill the gaps. Harry fights the central conflict alone at the end, but he’d never be able to get there without his sidekicks. And let’s face it, Sauron would be ruling Middle Earth again if not for Sam because Frodo is only slightly less tempted by the Ring than everyone else and is otherwise completely useless.
3. Creating conflict
Sidekicks can create conflict by not picking up the slack when the protagonist needs them the most. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets would be half as long if Hermione didn’t get petrified. And if Frodo wasn’t a complete moron, he and Sam would have fought off Shelob and hidden from the orcs together and everything would have gone much smoother and been totally boring.
Protagonists and sidekicks are also likely to fight at one point or another. If it happens close enough to the end, fights could get your protagonist lost in a pitch-black cave ruled by a colossal spider who paralyses him in enemy territory. That’s a pretty big hiccup in the plan.
4. Exploring themes
Not everything is about the protagonist! Okay, stories revolve around protagonists, but they’re better when they have a plethora of awesome, three-dimensional characters.
We can give sidekicks more screen-time as individual characters (not just sidekicks) when their story arcs explore a theme. Blood status plays a significant role in the Harry Potter universe and is a theme explored mostly without Harry. Voldemort’s motives are partly related to blood status, but Harry’s beef with him isn’t. To stop Harry becoming this boring saint who pushes his desire for revenge aside and destroys Voldemort for more selfless reasons, the blood status theme is explored through sidekicks Ron and Hermione.
5. Providing motivation and stakes
Protagonists usually love their sidekicks, making sidekicks something that can be taken away. If you put the sidekick’s life at stake, love can motivate the protagonist to commit to a course of action they hadn’t planned on and might ruin everything. Fear for the sidekick and worry about the protagonist’s decision are going to hike up the tension for your reader.
6. Allowing the protagonist to fail
A well-developed three-dimensional protagonist isn’t always going to win. He’s going to make poor decisions because he’s not perfect and he’s probably got a lot of internal conflict that will motivate these poor decisions. Having your protagonist make these decisions in the second and third act is going to hike up the tension for your reader because they’re going to wonder how the protagonist is going to overcome the central conflict if he’s taken a wrong turn. This is where you can bring your sidekick in to put the protagonist back on track.
Gollum spends a good two hours manipulating Frodo in Return of the King to the point where Frodo tells sidekick Sam to go home and let him finish the quest himself. This is one of the most tense moments in the entire story because the viewer/reader knows Gollum intends to kill Frodo and take the Ring as soon as Sam is out of the picture, meaning the protagonist will fail to overcome the central conflict. Frodo ruins any chance he has at destroying the Ring, until sidekick Sam returns to save the day and gets Frodo back on the right path.
What role does your protagonist’s sidekick play in your book?
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