Sidekick characters can enhance the story tension, help flesh out the protagonist, and move the plot forward in a number of significant ways. Several of the masterplots that Heather and I wrote about last year include a sidekick character as a possible component. Sidekicks are often included to give the main character a partner, someone to talk to, which helps limit the need for internal dialogue, but they can be so much more. In the hands of a skillful writer, sidekicks are even capable of stealing the spotlight from the main character.
There are four core aspects I like to think about when writing a sidekick character:
1. Emotional Growth
Sharing common traits and interests is one way to create character bonds, but they can also be created by friendly conflict. A great protagonist is a complicated character, and their friendship with the sidekick character should reflect that. I want these characters to challenge each other emotionally and change because of these interactions. If the protagonist is reluctant about the quest, make the sidekick a true believer and let them push the future hero into action. If the protagonist is rash and ruled by emotions, pair them with a cool and logical sidekick, someone who can teach the protagonist how to think before acting. When there is emotional contrast between these two characters, I find the relationship exciting to watch. Of course, these characters can be alike in a few ways (perhaps they share the same honor code), but I like it best when this pair knows how to disagree.
2. Sidekick Motivations
No two people, no matter how close, share precisely the same motivations. Everyone wants, needs or secretly desires something different. Although the sidekick and main character will travel the same path, I like to make their reasons for wanting to reach their end goals different. For one character, completing the quest might mean fame and riches. For the other, the quest might be a spiritual journey. I often associate the best sidekicks with the push and pull created by them clashing with the hero. Contrasting motivations provide great conflict and help build story tension; it also give the characters an opportunity to compromise.
3. Sidekicks Need a Moment to Shine
The sidekick’s moment to hold the spotlight is often brief, but critical to the story. These defining plot points take just about every shape, but some of the best sidekick moments often involve self-sacrifice. Many sidekick characters will give their own life to save the hero’s. The sidekick’s big moment can also work in reverse; the hero only finds their courage because the must save the sidekick. The reality of storycraft is the hero must live to fight another day, but the sidekick is expendable. That means this story device can get overused and feel too predictable, but it can also be the most touching part in the story and a true transitional moment for the other character.
4. Contrast is Key
Protagonists come in every form, and so can sidekicks. The visual contrast between these two characters might be small, or it might be huge, as in the case of pairing non-human with humans. I think contrasting outer forms and inner strengths helps the reader keep the two characters clearly defined, and makes it possible (and even likely) that each character will have unique skills to bring into the story. I love it when the sidekick can do something the hero can’t. One of the biggest complaints I have about sidekicks is when they feel like a pale reflection of the hero. I want the sidekick to have value that extends beyond just being the protagonist’s buddy. If the sidekick doesn’t serve a single plot function, there is a strong likelihood they shouldn’t be in the story in the first place. Clearly separating these two characters into unique beings is a critical step to making the sidekick character shine.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, nothing elevates the quintessential hero like the perfect sidekick. Find the right mix and you might create a powerful pairing, one the world will never forget. There are a million different ways to create a sidekick character. I’ve already written about some of the most popular sidekick archetypes, like the cheerleader, the class clown and the skeptic. You can read that post here. However, even that post is just a small sampling of possible sidekick characters. They can be young and old, strong and weak. They can be pillars of righteousness, or shady criminal types, and I’m crazy about them all.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about sidekick characters. Did they make stories better? Please share in the comments.