The Sidekick is a character who accompanies the hero or protagonist on their journey.
“I’m with him.”
Like the mentor, but even more so, the sidekick archetype is an interesting one, as the sidekick can be created out of many other archetypes, all with their own traits and roles. However, the sidekick as archetype, also has a set of reasons for being: to support the main hero on their journey. A sidekick must have a purpose, and that purpose is to be with the main hero.
Sidekicks can be secondary or even tertiary characters. Some of Robin Hood’s Merry Men are tertiary or flat characters without much development of their persona. Others are considered secondary because they too don’t have a full character growth arc or their own fully developed individual goals. Still others are full main characters in their own right, with inner goals as individuals but also sharing the external goals and conflict lines of the main hero.
Sidekicks as Opposing Characters
As foils to the main character, authors are often advised to create sidekicks with completely opposing traits to the main protagonist (her yin to his yang). Taken technically – or too literally – this advice means that you would create sidekicks from completely different cultures, ethnicity, ages, genders, professions, personalities, interests or skills than the MC. Sometimes this does work, but I would advise to avoid throwing together such drastically different MC’s and sidekicks, because sometimes this is exactly what it appears as – this sidekick character is solely there to conflict with the protagonist for the sake of meeting quota, being diverse or providing conflict between characters to highlight the hero as being superior.
In real life, we tend to mix with similar people, and form support groups within those people. Even within those groups – say, a school yard, there is enough contrast to find a suitable sidekick who has a commonality with the protagonist to put them together in the first place, but enough differences to provide the foil. Those types of characters, with some kind of commonality, also understand each other more easily than putting two largely diverse characters suddenly together.
Tip: – Unless you are creating a story that throws complete strangers together, (say, in a disaster movie, where they have only survival in common), give your sidekick and hero something big in common which would allow them to form the hero-sidekick bond.
Mentors vs Sidekicks
There was a time when writers were advised that mentors and sidekicks were different. The main difference being that mentors teach the hero, but the hero teaches the sidekick, and never the other way around.
I think this has changed over the last few years. Hermoine Granger is a case-in-point. With her superior studious knowledge in magic, Hermoine often taught Harry Potter things he didn’t know, whereas Harry taught Hermoine very little on the educational front. However, Harry had some obvious other mentors such as Dumbledore with far superior knowledge to embark on Harry. In this respect Hermoine and Harry keep their sidekick to hero status because their understanding and knowledge is on a more equal footing.
Tip: – There is a difference between mentors and sidekicks in that mentors can have less story time – they do not necessarily need to take the full journey with the hero, whereas the sidekick is there (mostly) for the entire journey – that’s the point of a sidekick.
Sidekicks of the Other Gender, and Love Interests
Hermoine and Harry’s example also breaks another often-advised rule that heroes and sidekicks should always be of the same gender. This was to save the pairing from fallout issues found if a love interest. But as we know nowadays, female characters, even as strong characters, don’t always have to be there solely as a love intrigue. Heaven help us if this was the case in our real life workplaces.
Although still rare, nowadays we have more fictional examples of heroes and sidekicks capable of sustaining a working (for the story) relationship without a romantic or sexual love. Lucy Liu’s female Joan Watson in the Elementary modern rendition of Sherlock Holmes proves that.
I’m not sure who is hero, who is sidekick or whether they are a buddy hero pairing where each alternates in the roles, but the Marvel Avenger‘s movie franchise pair of the Black Widow and Hawkeye as best mates also speaks to the ability to create platonic relationships. However, in later movies, the Black Widow, who is a sidekick hero to more powerful avenger heroes, develops a lover relationship with one of those heroes, Bruce Banner, which the writers then shortly after pulled apart by distance, so that Black Widow would work as a sidekick again.
Love interests can (possibly) be sidekicks but only before they become lovers. The primary bond between hero and sidekick is built on trust and loyalty – in other words, the sidekick will never disappear or break up (permanently) with the hero. (Although they may have a falling out on principle, and the sidekick may leave temporarily).
However, if they do become lovers, there is a bigger possibility of losing trust, and the partnership breaking up, reducing the pairing. This is why television shows like Moonlighting or laterly, Castle often went for many seasons with the questions behind “will they, or won’t they?” before requiting the love affair. Even so, to keep the sidekick / hero aspect, the Castle writers often broke up Castle and Kate’s love taking them back to the working together relationship, even to the detriment of some belief in the actual long-term potential of such a rocky relationship.
Sidekicks who Grow Out of the Archetype
This is possible too. Tolkein suggested that Samwise was the hero of Lord of the Rings, even though the story is through Frodo’s eyes. Both Frodo and Samwise are heroic and heroes.
It could be argued from the above Castle example that both Castle (who holds the story as main character because he’s in the title) and Beckett are both heroes and the series is a buddy story (until they get together). Beckett began the series as reluctant mentor to Castle, but Castle acts as sidekick to Beckett for much of the detective action. Later on as equal partners, both display the traits of the hero.
Batman’s sidekick Robin grew out of the role in the comics, as Dick Grayson took on the mantle of Nightwing, and later even had a stint as Batman.
In the television detective series Bones, Temperance Brennan is the main character of title, she’s the protagonist of the books the television show was based on. In the early T.V. series, FBI Agent Seeley Booth was Bones’ sidekick, providing more human translations of the words and ideas of the brilliant but socially awkward Brennan. Booth soon became a hero in his own right, and the sidekick characters roles provided as a group by the rest of the forensics crew at the Smithonian.
Recognising the Sidekick
- A sidekick is a foil to the main hero. The sidekick will have traits which oppose or contrast but also complement specifically with those of the protagonist, particularly in times of conflict. This means the sidekick will teach – through behaviours – the protagonist to grow and develop those traits for themselves, to fully become the hero they are destined to be.
- The sidekick accompanies the protagonist or hero on their external journey, while also supporting the hero’s inner journey.
- When dynamically developed, a sidekick will be a co-protagonist.
- Good sidekicks help showcase the protagonist’s positive and negative traits by contrasting them against the sidekick’s own traits. A sidekick’s traits will complement those of the protagonist.
- Bad sidekicks are there for an author’s purpose – to showcase the hero’s bravery by being forever in need of rescue; to be a comedy foil (or fool) constantly; to provide a quota of diversity for the sake of it; or to have a fully-developed character arc because the author fell in love with them and there are now too many plotlines going on around the main hero’s story.
- Sidekicks point out faults in the hero, provide needed skills or traits not possessed by the hero, remind the hero, boost the hero, or kick the hero’s butt when needed. But they do not take over the storyline.
- Importantly, a sidekick keeps the hero likeable for the audience. The sidekick provides a human interpretation and emotional connection to a hero who may be too distant or dark (ie. Batman), or through being stupid, make the hero appear more intelligent.
- Sidekicks can provide secondary points of view.
- In character groups, with multiple sidekicks to the main character, you will often find each sidekick meeting a particular archetype needed as a part of that group ie. the cheerleader, the brain, the techie. These sidekicks hold expertise or traits missing (complementary) in the hero, but required for the journey. But, these group sidekicks can run into stereotypes unless you take care to develop them as individuals.
- Sidekick and hero relationships can be remarkably intense. This means that a sidekick may have girlfriends or even wives or family, but they are so closely bonded with the hero that such wives or family are purely background characters (and can often go lacking in attention).
- Sidekicks can save the hero (save the day) and be heroic, but ultimately the hero will be the person who ends the story by defeating the villain.
- A sidekick can be expendable ie take the bullet, or die heroically, leaving the hero behind to avenge the sidekick. We see this often with sidekicks who are also mentors like Obi-Wan Konobe in Star Wars. Or Rue as sidekick to Katniss in The Hunger Games.
- Particular sub-types of the sidekick hold specific traits and behaviours to influence or contrast with the protagonist. Some examples:
- The cheerleader influences the protagonist with optimism and has the ability to lighten the mood, especially in times of conflict
- The Heart influences the protagonist’s decisions towards morals, ethics and justice– how actions will affect others, but also how hard decisions are ultimately worth it for the end.
- The muscle fights for the hero, but may not be loyal or understanding of the hero’s mission – they fight because they believe in their friend.
- The fish-out-of-water – this sidekick archetype is the opposite of a fish-out-of-water main character (like an apprentice hero who must learn the ropes). The F-O-O-W sidekick is there to contrast their inexperience with the expertise of the hero. Through the F-O-O-W’s eyes the reader learns more about the world the hero fights in or against.
- Non-human sidekicks are normally personified to some extent, even if normal animal like a dog. This puts them into either the silent companion type territory or that of a naive or quick-witted companion where they often provide a humourous but moralistic contrast to the hero’s efforts.
Two well-drawn sidekicks who are constantly argued to be as much the hero as the main protagonist, Harry Potter – are Hermoine Granger and Ron Weasley. Not only do they substantially share and believe in Harry’s journey, and each provides several other archetypes as foils to Harry (Hermoine is the brains and heart, Ron is often the muscle and comedy) but each has their own character arc and journey in contrast with Harry. However, their arcs aren’t as dramatic as Harry’s and are supported within the main storyline, rather than taking over from it.
Disney does non-human sidekicks often, and extremely well. Mulan’s dragon pal Mashu, Beauty and the Beast’s Mrs. Pots, and Peter Pan‘s Tinker Bell are examples. Cartoons often use non-humans as a moral contrast: Futerama’s Bender as a narcissist robot, or several superhero’s have non-human companions. Consider Groot, who has an unintelligible language, but provides a loyal and ethical contrast to many (okay, all) of the other major Guardians of the Galaxy characters. Before Groot, Chewbacca had a loyal sidekick role in Star Wars.
John Watson provides a foil to Sherlock Holme’s deduction and scientific expertise, but also lack of human emotions. Robin has a reasonably similar foil role to the darker side of Batman. Both Watson and Robin provide roles where the heroes can use them to talk and teach about what they are doing or to show off their skills.
The fish-out-of-water sidekick is well-known from the Dr Who television phenomena. Each Doctor has one or two sidekicks who meet this sub-archetype, allowing viewers to experience the wonder (and fear) of new worlds and aliens with time travel. They are even called “companions”. The Dr Who sidekick human limitations emphasise the immortal and cosmic nature of the Time Lord, and also allow them to die (or disappear, or grow weary of time travel) thus allowing a new sidekick to recreate the same fish-out-of-water contrast and complement to the hero.
The Dr Who sidekick grounding as human also gave the homeless Doctor a sense of continuality of place, and something (somewhere) to fight for. Certain Dr Who sidekicks provided needed complementary roles. For instance with the elderly Willaim Hartnell, the companions were often young athletic men who could do all the action scenes while Hartnell’s Doctor did all the cerebral stuff. Many older detective heroes have younger more nubile sidekicks for similar reasons.
Tolkein stated that he considered Samwise Gamgee the true hero of Lord of the Rings, even though the story is about Frodo Baggins, who is sent on the main task and story goal. Sam is a truly loyal and heroic friend. Tonto, created initially as a narrative foil for The Lone Ranger, took on much more heroic and noble characteristics in the viewer’s world, becoming as much a hero as the Ranger. Another initial narrative foil is found in Man Friday for Robinson Crusoe.
Action heroes like James Bond are given sidekicks who are often apprentices or initiates into the action world. Alone, and as a static character, Bond would just be too moody, cut-off or predictable to be forever revered by readers/viewers. Sidekicks, even if only for one story, provide the foils to allow Bond to show off his heroic skills, his heart, and to sometimes explain what exactly he is doing. Without those sidekicks he’d be mumbling to himself.
Other Names, Associates and Origins
- Other names:
- for protagonist: companion, friend (and alternates, bestie, bff), consort, right-hand man, wing-man, supporter, helper, co-protagonist, buddy, ally, partner or mate (both platonic); in business or love – partner
- for antagonist/villain: minion, henchman (minions are discussed in the M post for this series)
- Associations: mentors/apprentice/initiate relationships (see I for Initiate); loyalist, loyal sceptic (see Q for Questioner); the fool; the love interest (before they became the lover)
- Sub-archetypes / stereotypes: the cheerleader, the brains, the skeptic, the muscle, the class clown; the fish-out-of-water; non-human companions (ie. animals, aliens, spirits)
- shadow sidekicks tend to come out of the sub-archetypes: a cheerleader type can be overly Polyanna-ish or annoying or become an obsessed fan or groupie (or Yandere) or as a parent, too clingy or restricting; the brains can be too automotive or slow in action; the sceptic may be overly negative; the love interest may become one of the negative forms of the deres such as the yandere; the muscle may take force over the top and become a bully
- or the sidekick aspect itself can create a shadow in jealousy of being second-rung, or not the main hero. This can lead to betrayal, double-agency.
- or in contrast, the sidekick may be so firm in their loyalty and love for their hero, that it will be detrimental to other relationships. We see this often in the cop buddy stories where partner or buddy cops can’t maintain healthy marriages or family relationships.
- the Villain or Antagonist forms the contrast in traits and behaviours ultimately to the Hero Protagonist. In this argument, the villain is the shadow sidekick to the entire story. Less of a full villain, the nemesis or frenemie (particularly in school yard forms) can have some redeeming features, but still remain in direct conflict with the hero.
Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.