Posted by: kshayes513 | September 1, 2013

Superhero sidekicks and other magical friends

Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Kirk and Spock, Han Solo and Chewbacca. What would a hero be without a sidekick?

Holmes and Watson; Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Strand

Holmes and Watson; Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Strand

You may think the sidekick is a modern literary invention, as the word itself certainly is. However, the archetype of the hero’s best friend has probably been around since humans first started telling hero stories. One of the oldest known works of literature, the 4000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, centers on the friendship of the semi-divine king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu.

Arthur and Lancelot, Roland and Oliver, and Robin Hood and Little John have all been famous in western literature for well over a millennium. And fairy and folk tales from all over the world feature sidekicks in the form of magical helpers who befriend the questing youngest son and the daughter escaping her wicked stepmother.

What’s the role of the sidekick? As a literary device, the sidekick gives the hero a staunch and always reliable ally for plot purposes.  Having a friend to care about also gives the hero motivation when his friend is in danger: Superman has to rescue Jimmy Olsen as often as he has to rescue Lois Lane. But this friendship doesn’t just motivate heroic actions; it can also motivate emotional development. Much of the plot of the Iliad is driven by Achilles’ friendship with his cousin Patroclus.

For dramatic purposes, the sidekick provides someone for the hero to talk to, which is essential to the questing hero, because dialog is always more entertaining than the hero either keeping his thoughts to himself, or incessantly providing an internal monologue. Holmes challenges Watson constantly to use his methods, and finally explains his solution to the reader by explaining it to Watson.

The hero can reveal private thoughts and feelings to his sidekick in ways he may not be able to with anyone else. Watson not only has Holmes’s back, he creates a space where Holmes can reveal his humanity. The hero – especially the male hero – without a sidekick all too often seems emotionally inaccessible, his vulnerabilities hidden away from everyone, because he trusts no one. Clint Eastwood’s nameless cowboy gunslingers are the archetype of this lonely hero.

Sometimes the sidekick is a friend whom the hero meets along the journey, as Xena meets Renee Gabrielle (sorry!) at the start of her quest for redemption; sometimes the sidekick may be someone whom the hero rescues, as Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson when Batman encounters the orphaned boy on a case. The fun of sidekicks in fantasy and science fiction is that they can be almost anything or anyone – a Vulcan or a Wookiee, a robot, a wiseass Donkey, a Scarecrow or a Tin Man, even an AI or a sentient weapon or magical Luggage.

The best sidekicks, of course, are those who grow beyond the role of devoted supporter and follower to become important dramatic players in their own right, characters who are just as capable of the of the hero of making choices that change the direction of the plot. Willow and Xander step out of Buffy’s shadow to become hero and villain and savior at different times; while many people have argued that Sam, not Frodo, is the real hero of The Lord of the Rings.

So have fun writing your sidekick characters. And if you’re doing your job as a writer, don’t be surprised if those sidekicks sometimes take over the story for a while.

Who are your favorite fictional sidekicks, and how do you use sidekicks in your own stories?

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Responses

  1. My favorite sidekick will always be Tim Drake when he was Robin. I also have a huge soft spot for Sam in Lord of the Rings.
    You mentioned Kirk and Spock but I don’t consider either to be sidekicks. More like equal partners.
    Great post by the way! It’s very interesting.

  2. Spock is a perfect example of the sidekick who grows into an equal character, which is, of course, the best kind. He’s definitely a sidekick in the early years of the series, because Kirk, as Captain, is the hero. And thanks for commenting.


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