The Sidekick: Better than Ten Thousand Relatives
by James Thayer
The Red Swede, who was a yegg man, and a good one, sat over a pint of champagne with Dopey Polly, from Chinatown, and his side kick, the Runt. This sentence from Helen Green’s At the Actor’s Boarding House (1906) is terrific because of the nicknames, the slang (a yegg man is a safecracker), the dissonance (a pint of champagne, not beer?), and, most importantly, the promise of a tale involving a sidekick.
Readers love sidekicks such as Holmes’ Watson, Frodo’s Sam, and Aubrey’s Maturin. The sidekick is a story’s second character—a second lead—who is the protagonist’s friend and often her accomplice.
A sidekick is a remarkably useful plotting device, and here is why:
Friendships are as good in fiction as in life. As Euripides said, “One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.” A trusty sidekick will add to a story those things that we love in our real friendships. The tight bonds—the understanding, sympathy and undying loyalty--between Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee in Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings are a great pleasure for readers.
The sidekick can help define the hero. Raymond Obsfelt said, “Putting contrasting elements next to each other tends to emphasize each work; putting similar elements next to each other tends to blend them together.” A sidekick who is vastly different from the hero will sharpen the reader’s mental image of the hero.
Rex Stout’s protagonist, Nero Wolfe, weighs about 260 pounds, spends four hours a day tending his orchids, and he revels in beer and food. “Once he burned up a cookbook because it said to remove the hide from a ham end before putting it in the pot with lima beans,” said his sidekick Archie Goodwin in The Gambit. Wolfe has little tolerance for women, and keeps himself in strict control. "He shook his head, moving it a full half-inch right and left, which was for him a frenzy of negation,” Goodwin said in Instead of Evidence. Wolfe believes in protocols; he does not allow the use of his first name. Wolfe is prickly, intellectual, and doesn’t suffer fools.
Wolfe’s sidekick, Archie Goodwin, is a private detective and is the narrator in the thirty-three novels. Goodwin is a funhouse reverse mirror image of Wolfe. Goodwin likes women, and he likes dancing at the Flamingo. He is slender, he plays poker, and is a baseball fan. While Wolfe seldom leaves his home, Goodwin is at home on the streets. And Goodwin famously drinks only milk.
Wolfe and Goodwin are made vivid by the contrast with each other.
The sidekick helps deliver information. Ever notice that when we stand in a bookstore and flip through the pages of a novel, our eyes usually stop at dialogue? Dialogue—with its back and forth—is immensely inviting to readers. Most stories require that information be given to the reader. Sometimes it is back-story, and sometimes it information that occurred outside the knowledge of the protagonist. Dialogue between the protagonist and the sidekick that reveals information is more compelling than interior monologue (a character thinking the information) or the writer’s narrative (being told the information by the writer.)
In Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful novels about an English rifleman—Richard Sharpe—during the Napoleonic Wars, Sharpe’s sidekick is the huge and fierce Irishman, Patrick Harper. Here they are delivering information—back-story--to the reader in Sharpe’s Devil:
“I remember he got drunk at Burgos,” Harper said. “We put him on a charge and he still couldn’t stand up straight when we marched him in for punishment next morning. What the hell was his name? Tall fellow, he was. . . .”
“Bastable,” the name suddenly shot into Sharpe’s head, “Thomas Bastable.”
“Bastable! That was him, right enough. He used to close his eyes whenever he fired a musket, and I never could get him out of the habit. He probably put more bullets into more angels than any other soldier in history. God rest his soul.”
This is more entertaining than had Cornwell delivered this information via narration or interior monologue. Emerson said, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud." The hero and sidekick thinking aloud—in dialogue—is a vivid way to present information.
A sidekick offers another point of view. Sometimes the story’s protagonist cannot physically be in locations where important things are occurring. She’s too far away, and there isn’t enough time to get there. Send the sidekick, who can be another camera on the action.
And the sidekick probably has a different background and personality; he will probably be impressed and frightened and moved by different things than the hero. His take is often different, which is useful for the writer.
A sidekick can change the texture of a scene. A novel has an essential quality, and so do individual scenes. Perhaps it’s humor (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces). Maybe poignancy (John Grisham’s A Painted House), or tension (Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears), or wonder (Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama), or many others. But too much of anything—too much humor, too much tension, anything—can deaden a novel because of the sameness.
A sidekick can add a counterpoint to the novel’s essence. Bernard Cornwell’s series are filled with danger and tension--usually from fierce infantry battles--the essence of his novels. But here are Sharpe and Harper, again in Sharpe’s Devil, changing the texture:
“If you weren’t so fat,” Sharpe said mildly, “we could walk.”
“Fat! I’m just well made, so I am.” The response, immediate and indignant, was well practiced. . . . “[J]ust because a man lives well there’s no need to make remarks about the evidence of his health! And look at yourself. The Holy Ghost has more beef on its bones than you do. If I boiled you down I wouldn’t get so much as a pound of lard for my trouble.”
A sidekick can fill out subplots. A short story usually is about one incident in one character’s life. A novel, though, is longer and more complicated, and the pages between the covers need to be filled. A subplot is an auxiliary plot, related to the novel’s principle plot. It adds interest and tension to a novel. Sidekicks are excellent fodder for subplots.
Here are a couple of techniques for creating a successful sidekick:
Make the sidekick dissimilar to the protagonist. Writers often tend to give their protagonists many of the writers’ own personality traits. It’s easy to do for the sidekick, too, but a story will lose the advantage of contrast if the protagonist and sidekick are much the same.
An example of doing it right is found in Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the British navy in the time of Nelson, the first of which is Master and Commander. The protagonist, Jack Aubrey, is tall and stout, and has a florid complexion. He is an expert at sea but a bumbler on land. The sidekick, Stephen Maturin, is slender and pale, with a fidgety manner. He is a surgeon and naturalist. He is a bumbler at sea, but savvy on land. Aubrey and Maturin are entirely different fictional constructs, and much of the pleasure from these twenty novels comes from their prickly and affectionate interaction generated by their differences.
This huge contrast between the protagonist and the sidekick is a formula, but formulas are formulas because they work so well. Think of C.S. Forester’s The African Queen (the world-weary sot and the prim, repressed lady); Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (the streetwise detective and the wealthy society woman); Cervantes’ Don Quixote (the quixotic knight (what better adjective?] and the faithful, simple squire).
Follow the form. Readers expect certain things in a sidekick, and will be intensely disappointed if those expectations aren’t met.
The main expectation is loyalty. Once the hero and sidekick are together, they must be faithful and true to each other. To have a plot point where the sidekick turns on the protagonist—really turns on him, not just a feint—would be so distasteful as to probably make the manuscript unpublishable. “A true friend stabs you in the front,” Oscar Wilde said. Never in the back. Readers—and so publishers—won’t tolerate it.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com)