What does a sidekick do anyway?

This month, we’ve talked about what characters can be a sidekick, our favorite sidekicks, spinoffs, and sidekicks we’d love to see get their day in the sun as the main character. We’ve mentioned that sidekicks are a beloved trope in fiction.

But what does a sidekick do?

We often think of them as junior partners (see Batman and Robin). They are often less experienced, make more mistakes, and are funnier than the main character. But if a character is only around to make quippy statements, well, I have editor friends who would give you some probably unwelcome advice – if that’s all the character does, no matter how much you love her, she might have to go because she’s taking up valuable space.

We writers are told all the time: every word counts. Every word must advance the plot or reveal character. For sidekicks, this can be a bit tricky. They aren’t the main character, so how are they going to advance the plot? And if they aren’t the main character, does it matter if readers understand who they are?

I would argue that sidekicks can advance plot and it does matter if we understand them. Moreover, they are a valuable tool for understanding the main character. And because I work better with examples, let’s take one of my favorite sidekicks of my creation – deputy coroner Tom Burns.

Let’s take plot first. How does Burns advance plot? Well, he’s going to be present at the crime scene and he’s going to examine the body. Sure, my protagonist, PSP Trooper First Class Jim Duncan. Duncan is going to make observations of the scene based on his experience and that scene is going to include the body. But Burns is going to be a bit more detailed. He’s going to handle the body. Examine the fingernails. Talk about medical stuff (he does have a medical degree, if not a license to practice) that Duncan won’t see because he doesn’t have that education.

Later, Burns is going to be present during the autopsy. He’s going to help write reports. Deliver the results of toxicology. Explain findings and give time, cause, and manner of death.

In other words, he’s going to provide information. Information that Duncan needs to further his investigation and probably can’t get from any other source. And that information will lead him in a certain direction – rightly or wrongly.

And that will advance plot.

Okay, now let’s talk about character. Burns is quippy. He says all the things that the more upright Duncan wouldn’t or couldn’t say. Burns has a slightly twisted sense of humor (so I’ve been told and good, because I intended him to have one). But when the pedal meets the metal, he’s serious. He’s good at his job. Detailed. Professional.

What does that tell you about his character? Hopefully, it gives the picture of a man who is serious about his job, but has the sense of humor many who work with death develop to protect themselves – and he’s not overly serious about life. He’s younger. He also respects Duncan as a professional and a person.

But Burns’s presence also helps you understand Duncan. How does he react to Burns? How does Duncan talk to him? Does Duncan treat him with the same level of respect? Does he see Burns as a partner in the investigation or just another hoop he has to jump through? The answer to each of these reveals Duncan’s character.

And because these two are friends, Burns get’s into Duncan’s private life a bit. Gives advice. Makes observations. That also reveals character – for both men.

Readers, think about your favorite sidekicks. Do they advance character and plot? How so?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73

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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).

9 thoughts on “What does a sidekick do anyway?”

  1. Frequently they’re a walking google which eliminates the need for poor protagonist to paw through books, files and databases but I prefer the sidekicks who have a relationship with the protagonist and who have their own character arc.

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  2. Agree! I have recently enjoyed Walter Satterthwait’s p.i., where his sidekick is his boss, the woman who owns the detective agency. Their interesting relationship reveals some of the protagonist’s history. In this case the sidekick furthers the plot, expands the character, and also provides relief from the intensifying situation.

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  3. Keenan – a walking Google, yes. But hopefully more otherwise just use Google, right?

    Kait, thanks. I love Burns. I created him as a throwaway and now he won’t leave the series. 🙂

    Sue, sounds like a great sidekick. The power of humorous relief cannot be underestimated, but it’s always good when there’s more.

    Sam, I hear you. I hate it when my critique partners all hit a passage I absolutely love, and they ask, “But what is it doing?” Um…

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  4. Great post, Mary, and something I definitely struggle with! My favorite sidekicks are ones who provide information through some fun quirky hobby that helps propel the plot forward while also providing comedic relief. I’m also a big fan of sidekicks who make it even harder for the MC to achieve their goal, like a family member who stirs up drama or a BFF who’s keeping secrets. Fun questions!

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  5. Kate, I’m with you. How odd that it’s so often the sidekicks that provide the comic relief, no? I know it’s true in my case. Burns definitely brings out Duncan’s sense of humor.

    Peg, as mentioned I love him, too. But I was a bit surprised when he sat down, put his feet on the coffee table and said, “Nuh-uh, not leaving and you can’t make me.” I’ve given up at this point.

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