Does Your Story's Sidekick Serve a Purpose?
If you harbor a peculiar distaste for The Lord of the Rings, this is probably not the article for you.
Just kidding, don't go anywhere!
Overall, I think I do a pretty good job of keeping my Middle Earth obsession at bay here on the blog, especially considering that–if you'd let me–I'd talk about the Fellowship morning, noon, and night.
This wouldn't even be a creative writing blog. It would just be a picture of me lying in a pile of all my Tolkien memorabilia. But this is indeed a creative writing blog and today Tolkien's masterpiece is going to get a small sliver of recognition, okay? Don't panic.
Three weeks ago, I told you that Lizzie Bennet is one of my favorite literary MCs, while last week I mentioned that Jadis the White Witch is my all time favorite villain. Now I must confess that Samwise Gamgee, gardener of Bag End and hero of the The Lord of the Rings, is my favorite sidekick ever.
Allow me to explain... (Please indulge me!)
Sam is forced into helping Frodo complete a task that is far beyond his understanding, and yet never once does Sam back down. He refuses to leave Frodo after the Fellowship is broken and protects Frodo as the Ring begins to weaken his mind and body.
Sam has the good sense to distrust Gollum, fights off the massive spider Shelob, and raids a tower full of orcs when Frodo is captured. He also resists the temptation of taking the Ring for himself and even carries Frodo through Mordor and up the side of Mount Doom when his friend no longer has the strength to do so himself.
Sam is the kind of self-assured best friend that you'd want to stick by you through every crazy life situation. Even Tolkien himself considered Sam the true hero of the series. And that, my friends, is why Samwise Gamgee rocks.
Alright, my nerd rant ends there. Yay?
I mention all the amazing things that Sam did because too many story sidekicks fall by the wayside when they should be your hero's main line of support. So where do most authors go wrong? And how can you make sure that your sidekick kicks butt with a purpose?
Let's get started with the tips, shall we?
3 Mistakes You're Making With Your Story's Sidekick
Your sidekick shouldn't be a throw away character, good for one thing and then useless thereafter. If your sidekick is only a part of your story for one of the following reasons, it might be time to reconsider their role in your plot.
- To show off your hero's bravery. Does your sidekick constantly need saving? Sure, you want to showcase your hero's crazy courage and mad fighting skills, but if your sidekick's only purpose is to get themselves into a fix so the hero can save them, then you're wasting their massive potential.
- To add comedic relief. Is your sidekick the funny one? That, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing, but if all your sidekick does is make jokes, then readers are sure to be disappointed. Your sidekick needs to add real value to the story, or else their funnyman role needs to be delegated to someone else.
- To have their own story line. Is your sidekick going on their own adventure? Perhaps you fell in love with the character before realizing there wasn't really a place for them in your hero's story, so you gave them their own story line.
But if storyline doesn't directly affect your hero's, it's time to rethink your sidekick. Could you give them their own separate book instead?
No need to read 'em and weep. If your story's sidekick has some some issues, we can work them out together. Here are a few things that you need to know...
Kill your darlings...
This phrase sure knows how to makes its way around a literary circle. Some attribute it to William Faulkner, others to Oscar Wilde or GK Chesterton. I've even seen Stephen King's name attached to the phrase, though it certainly predates his time.
No matter who said it, the point remains: as an author, you must get rid of anything that doesn't serve to improve your work, even if it's something you dearly love. Perhaps you've created an awesome sidekick. They're loyal and brave and witty and fun.
They've quickly become your favorite little darling and you just know readers are going to love them.
Or will they?
Let's do a little experiment!
Take a good look at your story, examining its plot and purpose. Now take your sidekick out of the story and reexamine it. Does your story fall apart without them? If your answer is no then your sidekick lacks purpose, and you're left with three options.
You can either...
- Leave your sidekick in the story, knowing that they don't belong.
- Kill your darlings by removing your sidekick from the story.
- OR, reform your sidekick, giving them the purpose they need to add value to your story.
If you find that #2 would be the better choice for your story, then great! I know it hurts, but your story will be all the better for it. If, however, you believe that your story just wouldn't be the same without your hero's loyal friend, here are 10 ways you can give your sidekick purpose today...
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Is Your Sidekick the Hero's Foil?
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: many sidekicks in literature act the hero's foil.
Allow me to explain: a foil is a character who is specifically designed to showcase the protagonist's qualities by contrasting them as starkly as possible.
In essence, your sidekick and your hero would be polar opposites so that your hero's personality, skills, and/or experiences (or lack thereof) are amplified. As a foil, your sidekick would constantly shine a light on your hero, who just so happens to be standing in the dark.
Still confused about what a foil is? Here are a few classic literary examples:
- John Watson for Sherlock Holmes
- Charles Darnay for Sydney Carton
- Hermione Granger for Harry Potter
- Edmund Pevensie for Lucy Pevensie
And yes, Samwise Gamgee is indeed a foil for Frodo Baggins. Not only does Sam remain optimistic when Frodo loses heart, but it is ultimately Sam who remains unbeguiled by the power of the Ring while Frodo nearly keeps it for himself.
As you can see, being the hero's foil has given many literary sidekicks a strong purpose in their respective stories. You can improve the effectiveness of your own foil by making your two characters as contrasting as possible.
Consider all factors, including culture, ethnicity, age, gender, profession, personality, skill sets, and interests. Your hero and your sidekick should be yin and yang, meaning that though they're contrasting forces, they serve to complement one another.
9 More Ways to Give Your Sidekick Purpose:
Now that you've learned the number one secret to writing a fascinating sidekick, here are nine more purposes you can give them to jump-start their role in your narrative:
- They can call the hero out on their crap. Your hero will probably be an idiot at some point in the story. Perhaps they're tired, stressed, aggravated, or angry.
Whatever the case, they are about to make some poor decisions, and your sidekick is the one who can call them out on their stupidity. That's what friends are for, right?
- They can provide the hero with clarity. Your hero will have many tough choices to make as they work to defeat the villain.
Don't let them go at it alone! Have your sidekick identify the wisest course of action, provide the hero with advice, or encourage them when they begin to doubt their own noble purpose.
- They can create secondary tension. Not everything runs smoothly between friends. An argument is bound to ensue when your sidekick calls the hero out on their crap or offers a suggestion they don't like. This secondary tension will further increase your story's conflict, raising the stakes for your hero and ultimately creating a story of true depth.
- They can force the hero to confront their heart. Other characters will want to influence your hero's decisions. It would be easy for your hero to get swept up in all the other views, morals, and beliefs being thrown their way. If your sidekick is truly a loyal friend, they'll know how to make your hero confront their own heart in the matter, helping them focus on staying true to themselves.
- They can help the hero see past themselves. On the other hand, some heroes are so into themselves they can't see how their own actions hurt everyone around them. Your sidekick can be the one to sit them down and state it point-blank. A figurative (or literal!) slap in the face will help your hero come out of the fog and realize the true consequences of their actions.
- They can provide a secondary POV. Have a plot point you need to cover that doesn't involve your hero? Your sidekick is a superb choice to take that second POV. Of course, this doesn't mean you tell one chapter from the sidekick's POV and then never return. You'll need to utilize that secondary POV throughout the story to create a cohesive novel.
- They can teach us the hero's backstory. No one likes to listen to someone talk about themselves for hours on end. If your hero has a ton of integral backstory that needs sharing, your sidekick can help.
Split that backstory up between your hero and your sidekick so you aren't info-dumping on your readers. Then try having the sidekick point out something from the hero's past in conversation or in their narrative.
- They can keep your hero likable. Do you ever find you become moody or annoyed when you're left to your own devices? It's human nature to rely on others to keep ourselves in check. Don't let your hero become a grouch by leaving them all alone. Have your sidekick stick by their side so your hero can bring out the best they have to offer.
- They can be your hero's saving grace. Remember how I mentioned that your sidekick shouldn't be present in the story for the sole purpose of giving your hero someone to save? Well, let's flip that situation.
Do you need to prove just how epic your villain is? Try backing your hero into a corner. It's okay for them to face a bit of early failure because you have a sidekick ready to rescue them from their sticky situation.
Isn't it crazy how much power your sidekick has to further develop the hero of your story? Never throw away a secondary character's potential. Give your sidekick some purpose today!
All right, I'm gonna go binge watch The Lord of the Rings now because the obsession is oh-so real. You can join me if you'd like!
As always, let me know in the comments below or on social media if you have any questions? Tell me, too: who is your favorite sidekick in literature? Do you have any additional tips for giving your sidekick purpose? I'd love to hear them!