Nothing elevates the quintessential protagonist like the perfect sidekick. These secondary characters help showcase the protagonist’s positive and negative traits by contrasting them against the sidekick’s own traits. The bond between these two characters is often a vulnerable relationship. Our good friends always know our darkest history, the secrets we never share with outsiders. At times, the sidekick acts more like a co-protagonist, particularly with the mentor/apprentice relationship, or with a group of hero characters, archetypes I’ve already addressed in other posts.
The exemplary sidekicks can take over the story, becoming more memorable, interesting, and/or lovable than their partner. Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, Igor in Young Frankenstein, or Ford Perfect in The Hitcher’s Guide to the Galaxy, all these sidekicks have solid and unshakable fan bases. Sidekicks, like all characters, have their own archetypes; here are seven of my favorites.
1. The Cheerleader:
No, this is not the short-skirted athletic variety of cheerleader, that one is more often at home in the antagonist, mean-girls category. This cheerleader just wants to be happy and when possible spread that joy around. They are often annoying, but well-meaning characters, and in the case of Pollyanna, or Annie, manage to pull off being the protagonist in the story. Optimistic and clinging to an assurance that everything eventually turns out for the best, the cheerleader can be a complicated or even tragic figure, inwardly sad, and hiding dark secrets behind a soft voice and an every-ready smile. Although surrounded by the other sort of cheerleaders, Rachel Berry from Glee is one too, always ready to pump up herself or her friends with her big dreams for a bright future.
2. The Class Clown:
The habitually clumsy, the socially clueless, and the naughty prankster are all at home in this group. The clowns lighten not only the atmospheric mood by zinging brilliant oneliners and executing physical comedy with ease, but by tempering an overly serious and dark protagonist. Some clowns even get their laughs from feeding off the chemistry of their too-serious partners. Comic duos are often the most humorous to watch; when a funny protagonist meets his or her equal, magic often happens. There are many funny sidekicks: Donkey in Shrek, Ethel Mertz in I Love Lucy, or try Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This pint-sized sidekick stole the show with comic timing far beyond his years.
3. The Muscle:
Protagonists can be strong heroes capable of fighting their own battles, or fragile characters who need someone like the muscle to protect them. Muscle sidekicks differ from a hero archetype in their loyalties, the muscle almost always fights for the sake of the protagonist, not for the protagonist’s goals. The muscle may not even agree with the protagonist’s goal, but sticks with him for friendship’s sake. The scale of the muscle is relative to the task. Kids can play the muscle, especially when they stand up for someone smaller and weaker, look at Elliot in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Burn Notice is the perfect collection of muscle sidekicks with a hero protagonist. Who doesn’t love scruffy Sam, or feisty Fiona? With a cache of dangerous skills and extensive underworld contacts, the muscle sidekicks on Burn Notice manage to help save Michael’s skin in just about every episode.
4. The Heart:
This character is sometimes mistaken for the cheerleader, but it’s vastly different. Whereas cheerleaders influence others with optimism, the heart is all about the morality of the end game. They will likely admit tomorrow will suck just as much as yesterday, but as long as the path is just, the hardship is worth it. The hearts often work their magic from the sidelines. They may even make concessions in secret that jeopardize their own safety to protect the protagonist, like with Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games. Some hearts rise up from the ranks to become protagonist leaders, or the symbols of the cause, like Princesses Leia in Star Wars. Other hearts prefer to shun the limelight and responsibility of leadership, and use their sidekick status to repair broken alliances and make passionate pleas for protagonist support. Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the heart during the early seasons, less so in later years. Her special blend of talents, sound advice, and kindness, helped fuse the group together at critical times.
5. The Skeptic:
For the skeptics to assume the sidekick role they cannot constantly be negative characters; no one would willingly hang out with a dogmatic, unretractable skeptic. Unless it’s Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory or Star Trek’s Spock. Most sidekick skeptics are softer. They are careful, overly analytical characters. People who look, and then calculate the statistical probability of failure in mean, median and mode, before they leap. Skeptics can balance an overly bold, emotional, or freethinking protagonist. Look to Dana Scully in early seasons of X-Files as the perfect skeptic sidekick, always ready to find the logical answer for Mulder’s wild speculations.
6. The Fish Out of Water:
Time travel, supernatural abilities, reversals in social status or changes in cultural setting can produce some spectacular back-stories for this lost, lonely, and sometimes funny character. A good fish-out-of-water sidekick gives the protagonist a chance to protect someone, and to learn something about themselves in the process. The biggest problem with the fish out of water is when it drags out too long. Eventually the fish must learn to navigate the new environment. For this reason, using a fish-out-water character for a single book is a smart bet, but casting them in a series of books is risky. Right now TV is in love with the fish out of water: Sleepy Hollow and Hart of Dixie. Film shares a long history of using this archetype both as protagonist and sidekick. Try contrasting The Blind Side, and Enchanted for two vastly different takes on the fish-out-of-water character.
7. The Non-humans:
They are friends, counselors, and protectors of the protagonist. The non-human characters, (paranormals, space aliens, animals, robots, etc.) are usually infused with human-like characteristics. They walk and talk, at least to the protagonist, if not to everyone else. They function almost like any other character in the story. Sometimes they follow their own path, but usually they support the protagonist’s needs. If you want to understand all the ways to use a nonhuman sidekick, the place to start is Disney. From Mulan’s dragon pal Mashu, to Beauty and the Beast’s Mrs. Pots, to Peter Pan‘s Tinker Bell, the mythical non-human sidekick has found a welcome home at Walt’s house. Or try a robotic sidekick, like Bender in Futurama.
Remember the key to a good sidekick is to make sure he is a contrasting character, and never the carbon copy of the protagonist. Although these two characters should have similar goals, they shouldn’t align perfectly. A sidekick should come in to the story with h/her own set of needs, values, and ideas. Have fun pairing wildly different characters, and see which ones click. Above all, look for balance, and for the sidekick to have a purpose in the story. If they’re acting as part of the setting, and not part of the story, it’s a wasted opportunity.
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