Who is the sidekick?

On Monday, Pamela Oberg got us kicked off for April and our theme of sidekicks with this post. It got me thinking. Sidekicks are throughout fiction. Holmes and Watson. Poirot and Hastings (why can I only think of classics right now?). Anyway, these are stories we can’t imagine without the faithful sidekick.

And it got me thinking about my own fiction. The sidekick is an “archetype” in fiction. Do I use it? In the Niagara Falls mysteries, starring Niagara Falls homicide detective Jackson Davis, absolutely. There’s his former partner, Max Simon. But I don’t think she’s a sidekick (Neither does she. In fact, don’t call her a sidekick – it’ll make her pretty unhappy with you). She’s a mentor, the one who guides Jackson to fulfillment of his mission. His sidekick is, I think, his current partner, Rodney Kirke. Rodney is there, he helps, but he’s definitely a supporting character.

The Laurel Highlands Mysteries are a bit trickier. See, I’ve always thought of my Pennsylvania State Police trooper Jim Duncan as the protagonist. He is the one who primarily drives the story and solves the crime. But…

Then there’s Sally Castle, a county public defender. At first, I wanted to cast her as the sidekick. Except she’s driving her own story. And while it might often be a sub-plot, it’s definitely a story. She’s Jim’s love interest for sure (if he’d get over himself and let her, sheesh). But she has a POV in the stories. She’s a big part of the action. So really, she’s another protagonist. A co-protagonist.

And is that kosher? Can you have that? Well, no. One character has to be primary, right? Because that would cast Jim in the roles of love interest (and Sally has no issues on her end of this relationship) and sidekick. Can he do that – be both?

See why this is confusing?

And of course there are two true sidekicks. Trooper Tabitha McAllister (who trained with Jim) and county deputy coroner Tom Burns. They are most definitely supporting cast. Important in that I can’t imagine driving the story to conclusion without them (and Burns provides humor at key points). They have their own story, although it’s not nearly as big and important as Jim’s and Sally’s. But they aren’t stars. And while they mostly interact with Jim, Tabitha helps Sally from time to time. So they are sidekicks for both.

Which brings me back to my original dilemma. Can you have two protagonists? Can a character be a hero and a sidekick–and a love interest? Just how many hats can a character wear?

Writers, do you ever get into this situation and what do you think? Readers, do you ever consider characters in multiple roles and does it bother you? Or does it give the story additional depth?

 

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

13 thoughts on “Who is the sidekick?”

  1. I’m finishing up a book now that has multiple viewpoints. But there’s only one protagonist, even though the other viewpoint characters definitely have their own stories. Their view of things supports the protagonist’s story. Sidekicks, otoh, are useful for sharing information that the protagonist wouldn’t otherwise get. That’s how I keep them separate as a writer. But as a reader, I do think that multiple roles gives the story added depth, because they provide so many layers.

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  2. Good questions, Mary! You made me really think about the fact that probably sidekicks have to act like/function as sidekicks in order for us to see them that way. Because there are stories with strong protagonists who have supporting characters that we don’t necessarily refer to as “sidekicks.” There’s a certain sidekick-y quality we respond to. Very interesting! As far as characters wearing different hats, as a reader I like it…the more complex characters are, the more interesting I tend to find them. 😉

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  3. Becky, I love that! It kind of goes along with my view: know the rules so when you break them, you can explain why. 🙂

    Sue, that’s the thing. Sally does provide information Jim wouldn’t have – but then there’s her side of the story, often the same story. The one I’m currently working on is more of a sub-plot, but she still contributes to the main story question.

    Cynthia, I think you’re right and that’s what trips me up with Sally. The others yeah, they provide information. They are “the heroes of their own story” as the saying does, but it’s REALLY a sub-plot. Definitely supporting cast. But Sally…she’s supporting cast, but yet if I take her out, half the book disappears! I think I worry about it more than my readers (definitely more than my critique group). 🙂

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  4. Interesting observation! Right now I’m listening to the latest Inspector Rebus, Even Dogs in the Wild. There are three interconnecting mysteries each of which is being investigated by a different POV character who meet up periodically giving them the opportunity to rehash the clues. So in each of their POV’s, they’re the protag and the other two are the sidekicks. It works quite well.

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  5. Have kept thinking…It sounds like Sally is also a protagonist. Maybe you could expand her presence! I thought she could carry her own book even, in the version I read. 🙂 But even if not a second protagonist, she can be secondary without being sidekick. So you may indeed be the only one who is focusing on it, as you say, in which case all you have to do is let it ride. Done! 🙂

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  6. Thought-provoking post, Mary! I enjoy reading stories where it’s not super clear who the protagonist is (usually the character with the greatest arc). This makes me think of Donald Maass’ advice from Writing the Breakout Novel on how the more connections/roles a secondary character has to the MC, the better; something I always try to keep in mind for my own writing 🙂

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  7. Cynthia – she can, but not that book. The focus and story question would be completely different.

    Kate, I should revisit that book by Maass. I tend to think Jim’s arc is greater (because he’s the one actually the primary investigator as well as the one who changes the most), but I could be biased. I guess the character’s “roles” are dependent on whose story you’re focused on, and that may not be a bad thing.

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  8. I ended up placing a manuscript I’d worked on for over two years in a box (thank you, Becky) because while I love the characters (it’s a series) the story just wasn’t working. One of the reasons I was struggling was I hadn’t truly decided whose story it was. I think you’re spot on understanding that this is Jim’s story and Sally can have her own another time. There can be co-protagonists, but if you want to keep things reasonable, they have to take turns.

    Everyone has stated they love multi-layered characters, and I agree.

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  9. Peg, absolutely. I always ask myself this: if I take out a character, can I still have a story (with a few minor modifications)? Can I can out Sally? Yes (with a few modifications)? Can I take out Jim? Not really. With the current manuscript, taking out Sally would eliminate an entire sub-plot, but the main plot could go on. No so much with Jim. So therein lies my answer!

    But I will selfishly think the story (the novel on submission and the WIP) is better with the both of them. 😉

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  10. My novel “Quest for Honor” has two protagonists: the Hayes brothers, aged 50 and 46, who are now facing challenges to their own personal honor. Although brothers, they have different personalities in many respects, and certainly different life experiences. It was a challenge to create these two guys, make them alike enough to be believable as brothers, yet different enough to sustain the conflict that drives the novel. From what my readers have to say, it worked. I’m now working on the sequel. I wouldn’t say that one is the sidekick of the other, and in fact in the first book they never do work together on anything. The second book, though, forces them to work together.

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