by Susan Spann, @SusanSpann
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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Susan 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).