Sidekicks can play different roles in different kinds of stories.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Batman and Robin. Xena the Warrior Princess and Gabrielle. Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The squad behind Avatar: the Last Airbender — Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph. When we think of famous characters in the media, they usually don’t come alone. No superhero can go without their trusty sidekicks (or their favorite team-ups). While everyone can follow a protagonist’s journey, often, that trek isn’t as meaningful without their best friends, their family, and even their rivals joining in.
What is a sidekick?
A sidekick is a character who acts as a combination of ally, helper, and foil to the protagonist. Historically, sidekicks have been unfairly reduced to a minor role: think about how Dr. Watson primarily records the tales of the extraordinary Sherlock, or the talented fighter Kato served as the driver to The Green Hornet. Today’s sidekick characters may not have the same skill set that your protagonist has; on the other hand, modern sidekicks are equally as capable. For example, while Queen Elsa from Disney’s “Frozen” may be the one with the magical powers, her sister Anna has the cheerful determination and big heart to help Elsa overcome her inner demons. Likewise, if your protagonist has a best friend, a partner in crime, or a wingman, make sure their talents and abilities complement each other.
Side characters have served multiple purposes as literary devices. The first use of side characters as literary devices can be traced to ancient Greek drama, which always contained a protagonist, an antagonist, and a chorus. The Greek chorus is an early iteration of a protagonist’s sidekick; the chorus acts a commentator on the protagonist’s actions; an echo of the larger thematic elements of the play; and can even become a stand-in for the playwright’s perspective.
Over time, the use of side characters as literary devices has changed when accommodating other genres. For example, in superhero fiction, sidekicks reflect the superhero’s inner thoughts and help prompt the plot’s action by helping the hero on their mission; this is why in early superhero fiction, sidekicks usually didn’t have a lot to their backstory outside of their origins alongside the superhero.
Another common use of sidekicks as a literary device in fiction is the “newcomer” character, who acts as the reader insert: a tool to introduce the story’s worldbuilding or character relationships.
Sidekicks in detective fiction
In detective fiction the sidekick asks the questions the reader may have in solving a mystery.
Sidekicks in horror stories
In horror stories, a sidekick usually helps the protagonist survive, but often, they become the tragic victim while the protagonist escapes.
Sidekicks in romance
Romance stories typically have two sidekicks, one for each lead in the love plot, as those main characters pursue their heart’s desires.
Sidekicks in modern stories
Modern stories favor presenting side characters as individual people, and new norms have been established in how to use them as literary devices. Side characters can now have their own subplots to parallel the main plot, for example, or they might be introduced as a sidekick in the first book of a series only to have a leading role in the next volume.
As a writer, you may find imagining your characters to be one of the most exciting parts of telling a story. Yet how do you know if your characters are truly there to strengthen your story?
Of course, you may have heard the writing advice that all your characters should be “well-rounded”: meaning that they should feel like fleshed-out personalities with strengths, flaws, personality quirks, and interests not connected to the protagonist or the plotline. Good characters generally feel like people you know in real life. Memorable characters have the distinction of feeling individualized enough that readers can relate to them as much as they relate to the protagonist.
Outside of this adage, though, the role your characters play is equally important to figuring out why they should be in your story.
Besides the sidekick and the protagonist, stories can also include the supporting cast, the villain, and the anti-hero.
What is the supporting cast?
The supporting cast is the cast of characters that gather in support of the protagonist’s goals. These types of people may have information the protagonist needs or have qualities that add more dimensions to a character’s life. They can also be the characters that populate the settings a protagonist inhabits, whether it be school, a workplace, or local neighborhood haunts. Think, for instance, how often the classmates and teachers show up in middle-grade or young adult books; siblings and parents in a family drama; the police chief and newspaper kid who gives the noir PI the best tips on the case. These characters’ roles are usually limited to the plot: mentor and authority figures, for example, often only show up when they are needed to give advice or to place obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
The exception to this, however, is if a supporting character plays a thematic, or foil, role in the story. In “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is haunted by his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who plays the foil before the three Ghosts of Christmas arrive: Marley is a warning that someone as selfish as he can be doomed in the afterlife. Some of the most memorable supporting characters, in fact, are powerful because they serve as a reflection of another aspect of the protagonist’s personality or journey.
What is an antagonist?
Another character type that is framed in relation to the protagonist is, of course, the antagonist. A common misconception about antagonists is that they serve as the “evil” villains of the piece, or that there can only be one of them in a story. Instead, think of the antagonist as someone who goes against the goals of the protagonist. If the story follows a wayward student who wants to skip school, possible antagonists might include the teachers and principal, but also the parent who wants the student to do well, or the younger sibling who tattles.
Antagonists are also created to reflect a warped aspect of the hero’s personality; writers frequently use this concept in superhero stories, but it can pop up in all kinds of stories. The Joker is chaos while the Batman stands for order. Lex Luthor is the elite and corrupt businessman, while Clark Kent (Superman) is an everyday reporter from small town Kansas.
What is an anti-hero?
The most fascinating character type, however, is the anti-hero. While there is an opposing quality between the hero and the anti-hero, an anti-hero is a character who possesses sympathetic qualities alongside the negative ones. Anti-heroes may commit crimes to help the public good, or despite the hero’s ideals. The most intriguing anti-heroes are set-up as villains who undergo a change of heart and eventually join the protagonist.
Zuko from “Avatar: the Last Airbender" is a great anti-hero in this sense; he spends most of the animated TV series chasing after Aang and his friends in order to regain his sense of honor from his father. When Zuko finally realizes that his father is a selfish and cruel ruler, however, Zuko chooses to become Aang’s teacher and ally to help save the world. Readers tend to love anti-heroes because they represent the most flawed aspects of people, while also being very relatable.
Now that you have an arsenal of character types to compliment your hero — the sidekick, the supporting cast, the antagonist, and the anti-hero — you can use your craft and imagination to build a dynamic community of people in your writing.
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