Twist on Tropes: Sidekicks

Boats are cool, but something has to move them. (Photo by Szelei Robert on Pexels.com)

Welcome to the fourth entry in the Twists on Tropes series. We’ve broken down Chosen Ones, Dark Lords, and Mentors. This week, we’re looking at your hero’s irascible, plucky companion…

Sidekicks

For the sake of argument, this is what I’m going to consider the default Sidekick: They are typically about the same age as the hero or younger. They are more often than not the same gender. They are often less than the main character in some way – less capable, less trained, less in-control. If the story’s tone supports humor, sidekicks will be the comedy relief more often than not. 

This is apparently a thing?
(Photo credit: rhettandlink on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA)

We’ve touched on this before, but it bears repeating – Tropes exist for a reason. They work. They fulfill a functional, narrative need in the story. Human beings have been telling tales for thousands of years, and exponentially more so in the past century. It is impossible to create a truly unique story. The Sidekick usually functions as an inquisitive excuse for exposition (sometimes called the “cabbage-head”) and a bumbling driver of conflict. 

Both of those roles are useful, and when well-executed, nobody will complain. The challenge comes when the sidekick is completely overshadowed by the hero. Without their own inner life and motivation, their questions and antics skew towards annoying. 

How might we fix this?


Shake up the Default 

Surprise delights us. Sometimes a small change is enough to bring a character to life. Why can’t the sidekick be older than the protagonist? The opposite gender? More skilled? From a drastically different walk of life? Seed these characters with contrasts and splashes of color, and they’ll pop off the page. 

Merge Roles

I know that I am guilty of inventing characters just to solve a problem. That’s bad. It’s transparent, and it lends itself to flat characters. If your sidekick just isn’t clicking, but another character is, why not merge some of those roles together? Why can’t the hero adventure with the Mentor (check out last week) or the Love Interest (coming soon)? In this respect, I firmly believe that less is more. We need fewer deep characters, not lists of forgettable names. 

Equal and Opposite

Also known as a True Foil, opposites make rich soil for conflict. Where the typical sidekick is less competent, the Foil’s strengths are the opposite of the hero’s, but both are equally capable. They sometimes rub one another the wrong way with their different approaches, but they need one another. This naturally inflates the sidekick’s role, making it easier to fill them out as a well-rounded character.

Rivals

Enter every buddy cop movie. The default sidekick and hero are friends. We don’t worry about their relationship – they agree more often than not. Why must that be so? What if the hero and his main adventuring companion’s relationship is forged reluctantly in fire? There are so many conflicts to explore between two equally capable but differently wired protagonists. This approach places the relationship at the center of the plot, sowing seeds for deeper emotional engagement when the stakes ramp up. 

Happy Writing

What makes your sidekick unique? In the end, these are just suggestions, but I hope they encourage you, reader/writer, to create fully realized adventuring companions for your protagonist.  

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