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Sep
15
2015

Does The Sidekick Make The Hero? -- by Allison Maruska

I had the good fortune of participating in RMFW's Colorado Gold writing conference this weekend. While I attended several productive workshops, I found a few to be especially informative, including one about sidekicks in fiction. With the permission of presenters Mario Acevedo and Warren Hammond, I'm writing this post so you can also benefit from what I learned.

I confess; I didn't plan to attend this workshop. I had a gap in my schedule and wandered over, thinking sidekicks only applied to Batman. I figured if that was the case, I'd listen for a few minutes and then wander somewhere else. Instead, I absorbed every word, because the presenters not only turned my concept of sidekicks on its head, they effectively showed how an author can use them to enhance the depth of the hero (or MC, if "hero" doesn’t sit right in your mind). If you're like me, you’ll discover where the sidekicks you didn't even know you had fit in your story.

There are several "types" of sidekicks, including:

leonard-nimoy-393861_1280

Photo source: pixabay.com

1.The Foil (example: Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock)

The Foil enhances the MC through contrast. He is in almost constant conflict with the MC, challenging him and generally making life difficult (though not just for the sake of making life difficult). Through these "safe" conflicts, we can see the MC develop and predict how he'll react when faced with a real conflict.

2. The Mentor (example: Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi)

This is the classic teacher/student paradigm. The MC can't develop to his full potential without the teacher.

3. The Indispensable Loyalist (example: Frodo and Sam)

Similar to The Mentor, the MC can't succeed without The Loyalist, but in this case neither is "ranked" above the other. The Loyalist is the MC's partner and comes to his rescue when needed.

4. The Resource (I forgot to write down the example, but maybe we can think of one. Write it in the comments if you do.)

This sidekick fills gaps in the MC's skill set (like Stella was to Charlie in The Italian Job, perhaps). Also, he’s the one who always "knows a guy" who can help get a job done.

5. The Understudy (example: Batman and Robin)

There's Robin! The Understudy is basically the opposite of The Mentor. He has to learn all the things and provides a way for the MC to relay important information. Hopefully he isn't too annoying.

There are other ways a sidekick can develop the MC or the greater story both outside and within these types. They can:

  • Provide romantic tension
  • Test familial or professional bonds
  • Accentuate issues of class or station
  • Provide comic relief

The sidekick can also be in a close partnership with the MC to the point that they take turns being the MC, so to speak (example: Mulder and Scully). In addition, it's a good idea to consider sidekicks for the antagonist. When this point came up in the class, I immediately thought of Magneto and Mystique.

At the end of the class, I realized I have two types of sidekicks represented in my two WIPs – The Foil and The Resource. This is useful information because now I can consider their motives in this light – what would The Foil say to the MC in that scene? Or what would The Resource do in that situation?

What kinds of sidekicks do you have in your fiction?

Allison is a blogger and author of the best selling historical mystery The Fourth Descendant. Visit her website: allisonmaruska.com

Posted by Allison Maruska 15 Sep 2015 at 01:57
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Responses to this blog

Dalatorre 15 Sep 2015 at 04:56  
This is a brilliant post. Our secondary characters are supposed to act as though the main story is really based on them - which most of us don't do - but we sometimes we don't realize that without good secondary players, we are depriving our MC of some great interaction.

In my sci fi thiller (that went through CC by the way) I'd get comments that some of the characters weren't developed. How EASY and BETTER it would have been to simply cast them into one of these lights to help bring out their role in the story! Genius!

This is a post everyone should read and consider.

Do you think there are more categories and maybe combo categories?
Amaruska 15 Sep 2015 at 07:05  
Combo categories - do you mean can you mix these? With the exception of the obvious opposites (Mentor and Understudy), I'd say so, but one type would be dominant. I'd venture to say Spock was The Foil but also The Loyalist in several instances.
Rxd01 15 Sep 2015 at 07:23  
I think that at their core any "sidekick" can be broken down into a combination of these 5 categories.

And who's to say that characters won't grow out of one category into another, the mentor and understudy being the most obvious ones to grow out of.
Eboney6 15 Sep 2015 at 09:50  
Ever since I watched butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, and the Sting, (love Redford and Newman together), on TV as a child, I loved the whole idea of friends so tight they're almost coexisting. I love the dynamics, I love the interplay of emotions. I love the no language needed cohesiveness. I also love messing with characters in this position. What great fun to set this up, then rip it apart.
I like the terminology listed above, from the sidekick workshop. There are other names that fit characters in this type of situation as any self help group will quickly throw around the terms, enabler, enmeshment, sadist...(and no I'm not talking about me).
It's great to examine how we bounce off each other in life and how that transcends to our relationships on paper.
Thanks for sharing.
E6
Eboney6 15 Sep 2015 at 09:51  
By the way...would the professor on Gillian island be the recourse?
Onalimb 16 Sep 2015 at 07:07  
Sidekicks, supporting characters, secondary characters—whatever we want to call them, they add dimension to our main characters and to our stories. Where would Harry have been without Ron and Hermione?

When I was just an avid reader, before I started to write, I couldn't have said why a promising novel failed to live up to my expectations. Now I know that flat secondary characters can be a contributing cause.

When we're submitting our work to critiquing groups, we may be working on early drafts, still figuring out the nuts and bolts. On top of that, we submit in bits and pieces. Secondary characters often fly under the critting radar. We don't always get the feedback that jolts us into fully developing them.

Where we can't depend on having others ask the important questions, it becomes especially important that we know to ask them of ourselves. Thank you for posting this.

Amaruska 16 Sep 2015 at 07:50  
Quote by: Onalimb
Secondary characters often fly under the critting radar. We don't always get the feedback that jolts us into fully developing them.


That's so true, and maybe that's where the feedback from betas comes in. They see "big picture" issues that we critters can miss in reading a novel over the course of four months.
Peggyc 16 Sep 2015 at 11:36  
Great blog, thanks for sharing. This is a great resource to add to any writer's toolbox. I've made a spot for it in mine, right at the top. And the timing is excellent, I'm just starting to flesh out characters for my second novel. Lots to think about, and much appreciated.
Mountain33 17 Sep 2015 at 03:40  
Thanks for sharing your experience and resources. This helps sharpen the concepts you've been trying to emphasize with enhancing the depth of my characters. I think I'll go back and see where they fit in these categories and see if the level of development is strong enough.
Trevose 17 Sep 2015 at 16:45  
Interesting way to look at characters and to show their development. I had not thought of my own work this way until just now. In a novel I'm working on (and which will start through here next week ), the MC is initially the understudy to her mentor (her father), and then develops another "sidekick," which is more of a foil though there are still elements of the mentor in play. In the sequel, she begins to think she is mature enough to function without a sidekick, which ends badly for her, so she finds herself alone but longs for one, but by then it is too late. She is alone, with all the hardships and drama that brings to the story.

Very interesting...thanks for sharing.
Sherryh 20 Sep 2015 at 06:23  
As an example of a resource, what about Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries? There's another example glimmering at the back of my mind, but I just can't tease it out. It's on the tip of my brain!

Interesting article. I wonder how the principal applies when the MC is the sidekick—that is, when the story is about one person, but told in the viewpoint of a secondary character in the story. (Come to think of it, this may apply to Dr. Watson.) I suspect the same categories apply, and this may give me some insight into an MC in a story I'm currently working on.

Thanks!
Amaruska 20 Sep 2015 at 15:29  
Quote by: Sherryh
Interesting article. I wonder how the principal applies when the MC is the sidekick—that is, when the story is about one person, but told in the viewpoint of a secondary character in the story. (Come to think of it, this may apply to Dr. Watson.) I suspect the same categories apply


That would be a fascinating experiment! Create narrator sidekicks of various varieties - a Foil narrator would tell it differently than a Loyalist one would.
Kusterer 21 Sep 2015 at 09:25  
Thanks for this, Allison.
My current WIP, Rosa Redux, has an unplanned sidekick. The original plan was two MCs and several colorful minor characters. One of the minor characters grew into a sidekick. Why?
The plot has romance-like elements, the MCs take turns avoiding each other, and I needed a Go-Between. She is the conduit for information to flow from one MC to the other. She's also the sounding board so each MC can dialogue thoughts about the other without long passages of inner-thoughts narration.
Since Shakespeare and before, romantic plots have featured Go-Between sidekicks. Is this a sixth category of sidekick, or is it subsumed under one of the other five?
Amaruska 21 Sep 2015 at 18:31  
Quote by: Kusterer
She is the conduit for information to flow from one MC to the other. She's also the sounding board so each MC can dialogue thoughts about the other without long passages of inner-thoughts narration.

Sounds to me like she's equal parts Resource for both MCs!
Sheridan 4 Oct 2015 at 07:39  
Thanks for the great post! I love a good sidekick, and watching the MC interact with their come-along friend(s) throughout the story (series), is one of my favorite aspects characterization. Taking advantage of the 'in' jokes and private means of communication between the two, the MC anticipating what his sidekick will say because they know each other so well, gives the author a great leg-up in organically bringing characterization, humor and much more into the story moments. One of my favorite author's, Harlan Coben, does an excellent job of this in his Myron Bolitar series with the MC's sidekick, Winn, who very much pegs at least one or more of the slots described in the post. The stories wouldn't be as enjoyable without Winn.

When a writer starts worrying whether the sidekick is coming through stronger than the MC, that's a sign he's done a great job of 'pumping up' the sidekick to the point readers will truly appreciate the character's impact on the story.
Samantha2 2 Dec 2015 at 06:52  
Cool, it's a great experience in life
Thanks for sharing...

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