What are we talking about? Why, the sidekick, of course. The faithful friend. Always there to prop up the protagonist… sometimes very literally. (‘Come, Mr. Frodo!' he cried. 'I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you.’) The question is, why? Why do they figure so prominently in so many stories?
I was thinking about this the other day while chronicling my current Work In Progress (WIP), Gryphon’s Awakening. It’s the sequel to my first novel, Gryphon’s Heir. Now, in the first book, my protagonist, Rhiss, didn’t really have a sidekick… well, not a human one, anyway. He did meet up with a young female gryphon he named Aquilea --- by combining Aquila (Latin for eagle) and Leo (Latin for lion) --- and I can tell you he was mightily chuffed with himself over that little bit of linguistic legerdemain. She became a sidekick of sorts --- they’re very close, but their communication isn’t (yet, anyway) fluid enough that they can have the kinds of snappy/swift verbal conversations humans can. But…
There was a fellow (human) named Alistair in the first book who was best friends with Rhiss. He didn’t come along for the ride when Rhiss went off on his down-the-rabbit-hole adventure, but I liked Alistair, felt he had an interesting few tales in him so wasn’t prepared to wave him a fond farewell, and wanted to reunite them in book two. Recently, lo, the time was ripe, so I did. Boy, am I glad I did.
Rhiss and Alistair get along famously together. It’s wondrous to witness their conversations… they just seem to sparkle and flow so naturally, it’s like I’m not writing them, just recording them. Alistair is irrepressible and loves to tweak authority, including Rhiss. He’s funny (well, I think so, anyway) and their discussions frequently overflow with charming dry wit. (I realize I might be accused of being biased here, like any proud parent, but all this is objectively true, I swear.) Alistair brings out so much in Rhiss… but it’s not just a one-way street. Holy smokes! I’ve been thinking. Why didn’t I bring these two together sooner? They’re great as protagonist and sidekick. And from that, we can illuminate five reasons for a protagonist to have a sidekick.
To begin with, it’s as Piglet said: it’s so much friendlier with two. Unless you’re some kind of rugged or misanthropic individualist (and speaking of which, even Lara Croft has Jonah, although she ditches him at times), it’s kinda lonely to be loping through the landscape seeking (or avoiding) trouble All On Your Own. After all, we’re social beings, you know, designed for community --- even introverts like me.
Sidekicks also provide a foil for the protagonist. They may be bold where the protagonist is shy, or vice versa (see above). They ask the hard questions the protagonist may not necessarily want to. Sometimes they act as a surrogate conscience. (Pinocchio had Jiminy Cricket.)
If they’re from a different culture (or even race), sidekicks can ask very pointed questions about human nature that we don’t usually stop to think about. One terrific example comes from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Picard had Data, an android constructed without human emotions. (And in the Original Series, Captain Kirk had Spock.) Data had a really hard time comprehending things like humour --- which, when you stop to think about it, is totally understandable. Why? Because most humour among humans comes at the expense of other humans. A great deal of humour is, really, quite cruel. Have you ever laughed at something, then in the next second stopped yourself to say, “What the hell am I laughing at? This isn’t funny --- it’s mean/sad/pathetic!” And then laughed some more anyway. As a character, Data’s puzzlement with us and what makes us tick makes us look at ourselves in ways that we don’t normally tend to do. That’s a great literary function.
Sidekicks also ask the questions the audience wants answered. They’re can be a means of providing the audience with information… although you have to be really careful about this, because if it’s overused it becomes the Dreaded Exposition Sequence, which is usually boringly pedantic and not at all imaginative on the author’s part.
Sidekicks provide a vehicle for conversation so we don’t have a bunch of Shakespearean-style soliloquies scattered throughout the text --- which can become really awkward after a while: after all, if we aren’t eventually questioning a character’s sanity when they perpetually launch into lengthy solo speeches, perhaps we ought to.
(Do villains have sidekicks? Well, yessss, they can, although I’ll qualify that momentarily. The Emperor had Darth Vader. Sauron (sort of) had Saruman. Saruman had Wormtongue. Voldemort had Wormtail. Screwtape had Wormwood. (Is there a theme developing here?) But the problem with villains having sidekicks is that they frequently prefer, I think, to work alone, or at least at arm’s length, because they typically have big problems with The Trust Thing i.e. true villains can’t really envision or understand a close relationship based on free choice, loyalty, trust, and, sometimes, platonic love. It’s just too alien to their natures, and most villains with sidekicks expend a good chunk of their energy either contemptuously mistreating them or peering suspiciously in their rear-view mirrors to see whether said sidekicks are approaching from behind with knives drawn. Because, quite a lot of the time, they are.)
So there you have it, today’s musings on a vital but frequently unsung literary giant. Let’s give the last word to Piglet, sidekick extraordinaire:
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
"Pooh?" he whispered.
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. "I just wanted to be sure of you.”