May 9th, 2014

Dr. Watson, I Presume? The Importance of Killer Sidekicks

by Susan Spann, @SusanSpann

Sherlock Holmes, mystery, writingWhether you write detective fiction, romance, historical novels or fantasy epics, a lone protagonist never receives as great a reaction as one with a well-developed supporting cast.

Foils serve to reinforce and highlight the hero’s good (and bad) characteristics, and also give the protagonist a chance to shine outside the primary narrative.

Although a “sidekick” isn’t mandatory, a strong secondary character improves many stories in several important ways:

1. Introducing an Alternate Point of View.

Sidekicks rarely agree with everything the protagonist does, and often have a radically different worldview. This gives the author a chance to present alternative theories, new opinions, and thoughts that the protagonist or hero might not propose on his (or her) own.

A sidekick proves especially effective where the sidekick has a different gender, religion, or race than the protagonist. In addition to adding great diversity to your fiction (and forcing you, as the writer, to stretch your mind to encompass another point of view), this lets you write from “multiple” viewpoints even when the narration is not omniscient.

2. Increasing the Tension on Every Page.

People argue. Animals fight. Aliens disagree in ways that sometimes require the use of laser pistols. (Did Han shoot first? Discuss.)

A protagonist needs to have conflict with the antagonist, and often with henchmen, but most of that conflict doesn’t resolve until the final pages of the story. A sidekick offers a chance for a disagreement—or at least tension—on every page:

  • How should the characters hunt for the killer?
  • Is pursuing that guy in the romantic heroine’s best or worst interest?
  • Which of these aliens should we trust, and which ones want to eat us?

The protagonist has her opinion … and the sidekick often has another.

3. A Different Kind of Interaction With the Protagonist.

We learn a lot about people (and animals, and aliens) by watching the way they interact with others, and we learn about protagonists by seeing them in various situations.

  • Does your detective have a fear of Zambonis?
  • Will that sentient unicorn stab someone for calling him “horn-face”?

A sidekick lets the reader see the protagonist interacting with different people, and in additional situations, rather than only interacting with the antagonist and/or henchmen. A sidekick allows the protagonist to develop a different kind of relationship “on screen,” in ways that usually deepen the hero’s character.

4. Playing the Shell Game.

A reader shouldn’t be able to guess a novel’s ending in the first few pages. Generally speaking, readers want some mystery—regardless of the story’s “real” genre. A sidekick can offer thoughts, opinions, and actions designed to distract the reader from the true solution, furthering not only detective fiction but other narratives as well.

By way of example: Father Mateo, the sidekick in my Shinobi Mystery novels, often misunderstands the social conventions and clues presented in the course of a murder investigation. Sometimes, however, he’s the one that gets things right. By keeping him in the foreground, and letting him argue with my ninja protagonist, Hiro, I can use their differing opinions to keep the reader guessing.

All of these, and more, will further the sidekick’s most important job: 

5. Strengthening the Reader’s Connection to the Protagonist.

Ultimately, we read because we enjoy the adventure contained within the pages of a book. We read because we like the hero, or heroine, and because we want to see the villain lose. Although there are many wonderful novels which feature a “lone wolf” protagonist, it’s often the interactions between that character and the ones around her (or him) which draw us in and keep us turning pages

This is particularly true in series fiction.

Holmes without Watson becomes a neurotic, slightly-too-talented sleuth without the humanity and sense of humor his partner brings to the narrative.

Batman without Robin is …. Ok, that might be a bad example. (But a good one to highlight the fact that a sidekick is not an absolute MUST.)

If you’re struggling to make a connection between the reader and your protagonist, to heighten the tension, or to expand your narrative’s world and view, consider adding a sidekick or increasing the role of a secondary character in your novel.

You might discover a “Watson” is exactly what your protagonist really needs.

Who is your favorite fictional sidekick (and why)? What other ways do you think a sidekick can help the protagonist?

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About Susan

Susan Spann, Writers In The StormSusan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014.

Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

photo credit: dynamosquito via photopin cc

42 comments to Dr. Watson, I Presume? The Importance of Killer Sidekicks

  • Susan, I don’t write mysteries, but I agree. Lone protagonists can work (I’m thinking of Dick Francis here), but I’ll be they’re MUCH harder to write. Especially a complicated personality that’s the most interesting to read. The easiest way to show their quirkiness is to have a foil – or a mirror character.

    Great post!

    • Exactly, Laura – and some of my favorite books in other genres have effective sidekick characters, too. Sometimes they’re more like developed secondary characters, but at the core they all help the protagonist shine.

  • Love your post, Susan! When one’s detective is an amateur, it’s a bit more of a challenge to put up a credible sidekick, but it’s certainly worth it! Really looking forward to your upcoming sequel! 🙂

    • Thanks K.B.! It’s definitely harder when the sleuth is an amateur – mine is, too, so I had to struggle at the beginning to find a realistic way to “staple him to the priest” – but sometimes the role can also be filled by a rotating sidekick that changes from book to book.

      I hope you enjoy BLADE – and I’m looking forward to your next book too!

  • PaperbackDiva

    So right. The sidekick can provide important information about the MC in unobtrusive ways.

    • This is so true – and one of the reasons I introduced a sidekick to my novels. I wanted someone to “help” the ninja detective in many different ways.

      • PaperbackDiva

        And sometimes the ‘sidekick’ is so interesting, you just have to give them a sequel! lol.

  • My favorite sidekicks are both from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books: Watson from Sherlock Holmes and Edward Malone from the Professor Challenger books. 🙂

    • Those are both great sidekicks. Watson is one of my favorites too 🙂

    • Chessie

      I vote for Sam Gamgee. Or some of Dickens’ loyal servant types, like Sam Weller out of Pickwick Papers, who I feel sure partially inspired Tolkien in the creation of his Sam. Watson is okay but he’s rather too bland to be lovable. Most times he’s more of a narrator than an actual character, and we sort of wonder why he even features personally in the story at all, except to do odd jobs for Sherlock and keep everybody from figuring out the brilliant solution before Holmes does.

  • Great post, Susan. And it applies to all genres. I love writing secondary characters. You can get more playful with them, have them say and do things your main character would never do.

    • Thanks Orly! I completely agree with you, too. Father Mateo started out as a “pure” sidekick, a foil for Hiro and a “different POV” character, but he grew into something much stronger, primarily because he can bring that important secondary perspective.

  • Another good reason to have a sidekick is to help make sure he doesn’t have to be alone. When your MC is alone, he has to use interior thoughts a lot to keep the reader in the know. But these same thoughts can be converted to dialogue if a sidekick is around. Thanks for the post.

  • Susan, can’t wait for your new novel. Yes, I love sidekicks. They add a dimension to a mystery that can be very interesting to write and important for the reader. The different point of view is a great way to introduce new information that is outside the main character’s circle.

    I did love Watson the most, but also liked the spin on Spencer with Poirot. Loved that he became the suspect in one of the later books 🙂

    • Thank you so much!
      I love it when the sidekick (or the detective) becomes a suspect, too. It’s a fabulous plot twist. In fact, I have that situation in an upcoming Shinobi Mystery – not for several more books, but it’s in the plot outline, and I’m looking forward to writing it.

  • I agree with Orly. This really got me thinking about secondary characters in my own work (which isn’t remotely a mystery).

  • Diana

    Love your hobby!

  • I can’t imagine my characters without friends. Thanks for giving me the reasons why!
    -Fae

    • Glad to, Fae. I love my characters’ friends and foils too. They add so much to the story, and it’s always fun to watch them romping through the scenes.

  • Melissa Lewicki

    This was really helpful. Thank you so much for such a great post.

  • I agree that sidekicks can bring out more dimensions and characteristics of the main character. We all act differently around different people, and it is important to bring in those different sides.

    • Exactly! Sidekicks are a fantastic way to do that, too, because readers love them and they give us a chance to bring a totally new viewpoint into the story. Thanks so much for your comment!

  • A sidekick may evolve into the main character’s romantic interest; if not people will write fan-fiction about it anyway (Kirk-Spock, Harry-Hermione, Xena-Gabrielle, etc.)

  • Plus, sidekicks are fun to write! We just have to be careful that they don’t steal the show.

    • I had that very issue in my series, Eric – Father Mateo quickly became more than just a “sidekick.” The series is better because of it, but much more difficult to write!

  • I think my favorite (although he probably would object to being called a sidekick), is Henry Standing Bear from Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. Deputy Vic Morretti is my second favorite and probably qualifies as the true sidekick.

  • Great post! And completely true. I think a sidekick allows the reader to see the various facets of the protagonist. Reading of his interactions only with his or her better half or antagonist can get pretty linear.

  • Reblogged this on Cronin Detzz "Writer's Block" and commented:
    My current work in progress utilizes a child, bright and full of questions, to draw out story facts – a form of a sidekick. The post below does a great job explaining the vital role of sidekicks, especially in serials. Keep writing & keep sharing!

    • Thank you Cronin! Children make fabulous sidekick characters because they so often see the world in completely different ways than adults do. That’s a great idea.

      • Children ask so many questions, allowing an easy method of backfilling some of the story through dialogue. Another great benefit is that they have free license to state aloud what the other characters are feeling with brutal honesty, manners be damned!

  • Great points! I need to pay closer attention and give greater credence to my sidekicks now. Thank you! 🙂

  • Sidekicks are so useful! In my novel series, one of the protagonists has a sidekick (who’s also the romantic interest); he helps keep the protagonist from being stuck in his own thoughts, and also serves as comic relief, amongst other things.
    As for my other protagonist…well, he does have someone to talk to, but it’s an antagonist stuck on his head. Still, the antagonist fulfills a few sidekick roles–someone to interact with, argue against decisions, and someone to keep their shared body standing while the protagonist summons an undead army. (What, don’t all sidekicks work with necromancers?)

  • Reblogged this on Abby J Reed and commented:
    This makes me want to get a sidekick for life….oh wait. That would be my husband. 😉 I wonder what literary character duo we would represent?

  • […] Whether you write detective fiction, romance, historical novels or fantasy epics, a lone protagonist never receives as great a reaction as one with a well-developed supporting cast.  […]

  • sjmn60

    My all-time favorite sidekick, Susan, has to be Sam Gamgee. In his own bumbling way, he was the best friend a man (or Hobbit) could have. The sidekick in my current WIP happens to be the hero’s uncle, and they love each other, but their different beliefs, and the way those ideas are causing conflict with the heroine, are making for some interesting and fiery tension.
    Really enjoyed this post.

  • […] Susan Spann on the value of sidekicks […]