The Problem with Sidekicks

12Apr12

Ah, sidekicks. Sam, Ron, Sancho Panza… the list goes on and on.

I always kind of figured that a sidekick (loosely defined) was a way to give readers/viewers an “easy way into” the story.

Like: for years, millions of youngsters have figured it would be just great to be Robin, so that you could get to live in Wayne Manor, use cool bat-gadgets, and punch out clowns with Batman.

The fact that some of those youngsters might have added a few other fantasies to the mix ❤ couldn’t have hurt matters either…

Batman fears discovery

Cold Shower required

So I was kind of intrigued to see Mieville’s take on them in Un Lun DunIn that story, everyone’s favorite Trotskyite critiques the institution of the Sidekick by having his protagonist discovers that in The Ancient Prophecy, she as listed as (essentially) “Chosen One’s Sidekick.” Her reaction is pretty memorable.

know you’re not a sidekick—”

“No one is!” Deeba shouted. “That’s no way to talk about anyone! To say they’re just hangers-on to someone more important.”

Damn, she’s right……

Nevertheless, the venerable sidekick is probably in no danger of extinction. Because it offers solutions to several formal problems.

There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on.
…
The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.

Michael Moorcock“How to Write a Novel in Three Days”

Moorcock, 1963

So…I take Moorcock’s point. I take Mieville’s point too. Sidekicks are useful, but on the other hand, they’re sort of politically regrettable.

How do we get the advantages of sidekicks without the degrading consequences?

I can think of a couple ways.

One is to make the sidekick smarter than the hero and therefore able to ironically comment on their follies

Another is to transform the sidekick into the POV character, or push them to the side of the story so they can report on events from a more objective place than the extraordinary, emotionally compromised hero.

Like, there are good reasons why the narrator of Wuthering Heights wasn’t Heathcliff, and why the narrator of The Great Gatsby wasn’t Gatsby.

Yeah, okay, so maybe Nelly Dean & Nick Carraway aren’t technically sidekicks, but Dr. Watson is for sure. Just tthink about how the Sherlock Holmes canon would suffer if Watson got the boot and all the tales were told from Holmes’ POV. No suspense, no humor, no slashy dom/sub interplay…

“I am here to be used, Holmes.”

—Watson in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”

“Good, Watson, good! But not, if I may say so, quite good enough!”

 —Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Of course, if you really want to make sure to avoid Sidekickery at all costs, the final possibility is to make your sidekick a cute animal.

I’m serious.

Consider the little floaty side characters in Yoshitaka Amano character designs, which help to deflate/humanize the mythic/ethereal/aggressive humans….

or the silent animal characters in Miyazaki movies…

from Spirited Away

These cute little guys get into trouble, overeat, get angry, & have all the cowardly reactions the brave hero(ines) aren’t allowed to, exactly as Moorcock recommends!

Plus, they sell lots of merchandise.

Even the Fool in the Rider-Waite Tarot has a cute animal sidekick.

Best of all, Mieville himself uses this method in Un Lun Dun with Curdle, the adorable animated milk carton.

So this technique’s immune to criticism for sure!

See you next time!

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