Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dynamic Duos! The Importance of Sidekicks!

Sidekicks seem to be a staple of fiction since fiction was invented. Gilgamesh had Enkidu, all the way to Clive Cussler's modern action hero Dirk Pitt and his partner Al Giordino. Of course movies and literature are swamped with examples: The Lone Ranger and Tonto; Robin Hood and Little John; John Steed and Emma Peel; and of course Holmes and Watson.

The sidekick serves many story devices for the author, screen-writer, and for my role-playing friends the game master.

The story teller has been the role of many sidekicks. Dr. John Watson is one of the most famous examples, he served as the every man; he was the avatar we used to accompany Holmes on his adventures. The story teller allows us to experience the adventure through their eyes, see what they see, and experience their peril as close to first hand as we can. It also allows the author to hold back information from the reader because either the narrator/sidekick did not experience it, or the protagonist held back the vital clues. Again, Watson was the device Arthur Conan Doyle used to great effect in this example.

The foil, the sidekick is the person that keeps the hero humble, to show him his failings, or to play the fool for the straight man. Roy Rogers and Matt Dillion both had this individual in "Cookie" and Festus. The sidekick may make the hero appear more competent, or actually get the hero into a bigger pickle than he was in. This sidekick is actually used to drive story as much as to drive the hero to drink.

Many sidekicks bring complimentary skills to the alliance. Tom Selleck's Thomas Magnum of 80's fame would not have been nearly as successful without his exasperated friends to provide support in all its forms. Zorro's secret sidekick, Miguel, as a mute, believed to be dumb and deaf, could go where Zorro could not. He would hear vital information to relay in his own comical way to the Fox.

The sidekick can be simply the confidante, or the reason that the hero stays sane. Such a story device was used effectively in comicdom with Batman and Robin. Robin was necessary for Batman because he was more cautious; less willing to take deadly chances because his young sidekick would be put in even more danger than his red and yellow costume got him in to. Many partners serve as sounding boards for ideas, or even Father confessors for the hero.

The partner/sidekick can be used for dynamic tension, television shows such as Cagney and Lacey and newer ones like Supernatural capitalize on the tension that opposing personalities bring to tense partnerships. T.V. has had a long history of "buddy" adventure stories. Sexual tension is another story device that television and novels use to drive the story. For many the appeal of a program or story is the relationship. Detective style adventures are a prime example of this story telling device. Castle, Remington Steel, Farscape, and Moonlighting had and have huge followings because of the partnership dynamic.

Sidekicks work in fiction when they are employed correctly. They cannot overshadow the hero. If they are better than, cooler than, or more competent than the protagonist….make them the protagonist instead, or save them for another story. Do not short change the hero that should have center stage. Partnerships are a little different, then there should be camps arguing who is cooler, not that one dominates. Sidekicks should be a half a step behind, a little less competent; they might need saving once in a while. Of course it is always fun when those roles are reversed. If the sidekick is a stronger character like Hawk to Robert Parker's Spencer, then they should be in the background, coming on stage only when needed so they do not overpower the protagonist. The tight rope to walk is to make the sidekick fully fleshed out and an engaging character without making them more so than the hero.

The sidekick is an almost essential device to good fiction, even in Cast Away, Tom Hanks had Wilson. Many fall into the categories I have sketchily outlined, and many more are combinations of them. They are a great device and sometimes their personality or story is so compelling that they become the hero in their own right. Some even receive the dubious honor of the "spin off" either in fiction or celluloid. The sidekick is a wonderful story device in all their forms, bumbling partner, love interest, young ward, or best friend. They provide story, drama, and plot to all endeavors in the story telling field.

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