Greetings, friends! From the realm of… *fishes around for the topic I had picked and nabs it triumphantly* The Sidekick!
We all know ’em. From Olaf the magical snowman of Frozen, to Sherlock Holmes’ Dr. John Watson, to the iconic Little John from Robin Hood, sidekicks seem to be an indispensable part of literary culture. They don’t just stay on the protagonist’s side, either. In fact, villain sidekicks may be even more prevalent and more stereotyped than their “good-guy” counterparts.
Sidekicks are the progatonist’s constant or near-constant companion. They act as a mainstay or a cheerleader when he’s down in the dumps. They are the supportive, quietly optimistic character who’s often delegated with comic relief.
Now while this trope can be messed up, or “done straight” (i.e. done in the most typical way) to the point of pure dullness, it’s one of the best out there. Without it, we’d have a truckload of unimaginably lonesome protagonists dragging around and moodily saving the world, only to wonder why they even bothered, since what’ve they got to live for? The fact is, most of us have friends, of one stripe or another. And if we don’t, we’re pretty sunk. It’s no wonder that main characters want their share of best friends, too!
This trope blocks off into a couple main types. They can be combined or meshed, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll just look at these three.
The first one is the Mossgatherer type. The guy is perfectly content where he is. He’s a homebody, often in contrast to the main character, who’s off being things and accomplishing things. More often than not, he just doesn’t seem to know what to do with his life. Even if he has a job of some kind, you get the sense that he waits for life to come to him rather than reaching out and grabbing it by the nose.
Then we have the Cheery type. This buddy is a ray of sunshine. He’s unfailingly (and sometimes irksomely) optimistic, fans the enthusiasm when all hope seems lost, and is remembered for his comedic lines and funny banter.
Lastly, the Sustainer type. These are the characters who get a lot of love. They’re the gentle soul who’s too good for this world, the “smol bean”, the victim of reader-hugs from every quarter. They stick by the main character’s side through thick and thin, offering comfort, wisdom, and support.
Then of course there are the villain sidekicks, who are usually sidekicks in the most vanilla sense of the word. They exist mainly to aid and abet their masters’ evil plots, be his bumbling yes-man, and provide the readers with a good laugh.
It’s not impossible to avoid this basic trope. By all means, if you’re inspired to do it, write a story about a loner. Just don’t give him any pets, or people will associate those as his sidekicks…
But here’s a few tips for those who are more interested in simply busting the trope’s tropy-ness.
First, and maybe most important: Base your written friendships off the ones you have in real life. Don’t assume that the relationships you see in books are the way things happen. Measure them against your own experience. Friends don’t always agree. In fact, the closer they are, the more free they will be with their disagreements. Neither do they always quarrel. Their closeness lets them accept their differences without arguing about them 24/7. The idiosyncrasies of a relationship, of course, will depend on what personalities your characters have, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to get solid, dynamic personalities for both characters in question.
Second, give them a truly deep bond. This is one of the main pitfalls of this trope. Sidekicks risk becoming mere soundboards, comic relief, or just someone to balance out and show off Mr. Main’s personality. Don’t be afraid to let your characters love each other (and I’m not talking about romantic love), and don’t be afraid to let them show it either. It gets tiresome when every earnest moment between friends is hastily fobbed off with a joke and a laugh.
Neither be afraid to give your pair a slightly dysfunctional relationship, something that can be worked on over the course of the story. Maybe the main character has a tendency to assert his own way or delegate tasks he doesn’t want to handle, and his docile, easily subdued friend takes the brunt of this attitude. You get the picture? They can have genuine affection for one another, and still have problems.
And it might seem weird trying these ideas out with a villain, but hey, give that a shot too. It never hurts to make your enemy more human.
A final thought is to give your character more close friends than just one. I don’t mean create a team of one-sided characters to follow your protagonist everywhere. Perish the thought! But put a couple other important people in his life. Give them their own niches in life, their own backgrounds and individualities, so they’re not simply there “for him”. Maybe one of them meets your character’s social needs. Maybe one is the friend he goes to for advice – or to pour out heartbreak. When all your characters are rooted into their own setting, their own backgrounds, and each other’s lives, a web of surprising depth will emerge. You’ll realize that you’ve created a community, and maybe a world, that’s more real than you ever expected it to be.
This article originally published in The Fae Folk’s monthly fantasy magazine “Trope Breakers”. Read it here