On Writing Likeable & Useful Sidekicks
Sidekicks: they're often a source of contention, and often for good reasons. But at the same time, sidekicks aren't inherently bad - in fact, there are a lot of good reasons to have a sidekick in a story. So here are some tips to help you keep your sidekicks from coming off as useless or annoying.
Table of Contents
- Know when it's appropriate to give your main character a sidekick.
- Beware of these traits and tropes.
- Stuff to do and to consider doing with your sidekicks.
- In summary!
Know when it's appropriate to give your main character a sidekick.
Some people just tack on a sidekick because they see it something you just do. The result is often a character who feels pointless, possibly even annoyingly so. So if you're thinking about adding a sidekick, you need to ask yourself if your story actually needs one.
Some reasons a sidekick might be a good idea:
- To give another character someone to talk to. Internal monologs don't always work well (especially on film) and infodumps tend to bore people, so a sidekick can give the opportunity to write conversations that explain things the audience needs to know - whether it's the main character explaining something to the sidekick, the sidekick explaining something to the main character, a little of both, or the two characters just discussing the topic in general. (Just make sure you avoid the "As you know..." conversation!)
- To give another character help in some way. Your main character can't be good at everything (or shouldn't be) and can't be everywhere at once (most likely), so a sidekick can give assistance where it really isn't feasible for the main character to go solo. Likewise, sidekicks can provide information that the main character might not have a reasonable way to know or obtain. (Though of course, you'll want to figure out why the sidekick knows these things!)
- Anything else that moves the plot forward. It might not be possible or plausible for the plot to move forward without the addition of another character, and so a sidekick can give you help here.
Some reasons a sidekick is probably a bad idea:
- To be the main source of comic relief. This is not to say that your sidekick can't be a source of comic relief, but if your main characters are all so dry and humorless that you feel you need a sidekick to inject any humor into the story at all, you should look into making some of your main characters a little less boring. (See also Reasons Your Character Might Be Boring!)
- To be the designated kid appeal character. This is not to say that your sidekicks can't have traits that children find entertaining, but if you're trying to reach a child audience and that's the only way you can think of to do it, you've got problems somewhere in your work. Good stories don't need designated kid appeal characters; you should be aiming to write a story that appeals to them, period. (Any Pixar film is a great example of this.)
So stop and think about your reasons for adding a sidekick. If they end up more along the "bad idea" reasons and you still really feel you want a sidekick for some reason, ask yourself if you can rework your story and/or characters so the sidekick actually plays a role that contributes to the plot. If so, do it!
Beware of these traits and tropes.
Sidekicks who are more trouble than they're actually worth. Sidekicks who continually put the main characters in peril or go around messing things up in general are likely to be resented by the audience, no matter how "funny" they're supposed to be. This is not to say that sidekicks must never make any mistakes, but if the characters they tag along with would probably have an easier time overall getting things done without their sidekicks, either boot them or dial back the incompetence. (And yes, this includes sidekicks who are useful on the rare occasion, but on the whole cause more problems for the other characters than they help fix.)
Sidekicks who are inexplicably naive or worldly. If it makes no sense for a character to be that naive or to know that much when you really think about it, try to bring that character's level of knowledge around to something more plausible.
Sidekicks who have no personal interests or lives outside of the main characters, or have no personal reasons for sticking with the main characters. This tends to have at least one of two effects. The first is that it makes the sidekicks look pathetic, which ups their annoying factor. The second is that it makes the main characters come off characters whom the world revolves around. (Note that this does not apply to sidekicks who are pets or robots.) Also, don't have your sidekicks' histories/backstories revolve around the main characters in some way, either - unless it goes both ways.
Sidekicks as always-enthusiastic apprentices/wards paired with always-cool main characters who act as mentors to them. This isn't to say that you can't have an apprentice/mentor dynamic with your characters, but you don't want to end up with this particular cornball dynamic going on. Give your mentor figures some flaws and shortcomings, and make your apprentice figures act less like toadies.
Sidekicks who are essentially less competent or less cool versions of the main characters. Sidekicks and main characters need not balance each other out perfectly, but they should at least complement each other in some way. Give your sidekick a build/skillset that doesn't just amount to "what the main character does, just not as good at it."
Sidekicks who make no sense being where they are. For example, no responsible adult would ever bring a child into a warzone if there was any other choice. No responsible person would knowingly let someone who couldn't resist touching and picking things up into a room full of dangerous items. No one with any competence would take someone who is constantly rude to anyone and everyone on a diplomatic mission. Stop and think: does it really make sense for your sidekicks to be where they are? If not, boot them or give them reasons.
Sidekicks who clash in some way with the rest of the work. For example, a character with a design that looks like it belongs in another work because it doesn't match with the rest of the character designs. (Imagine how odd Spike from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic would look tagging along with the cast of the 1980's Transformers cartoon!) This can also mean characters who seem like they came from another story entirely because their behaviors and attitudes feel too far out of place. (Imagine someone with the attitude of Winnie-The-Pooh tagging along with the main characters of Supernatural!)
Sidekicks who get away with things anyone else would face consequences or disapproval for. If it wouldn't be funny or cute if the protagonist's mom, best friend, or love interest blew up the house, it won't be funny or cute if the sidekick does it, either.
Sidekicks getting up to hijinks and shenanigans that have nothing to do with the plot for long stretches of time. Some hijinks and shenanigans sprinkled here and there into the story can be entertaining, but if it goes for minutes or for pages on end, it can get tiresome.
Sidekicks who are exempted from character development. If everyone else in a story gets character development, then so should the sidekick. Sidekicks can even have their own character arcs, too.
Stuff to do and to consider doing with your sidekicks.
Flesh out your sidekicks as much as you do your main characters. You don't want to end up with well-developed main characters paired with two-dimensional sidekicks!
Sometimes, let your sidekicks disagree with the main characters - and be right. If the main characters are always right and the sidekicks are always wrong, it's going to come off as pretty contrived. (Note - disagreements where the sidekick is taking some feel-good position like "love is worth fighting for" or "you gotta get up and try again!" do not count.)
Let sidekicks gets stuff done on their own. Sidekicks needn't always be following someone else's orders - they might get stuff done independently, whether for everyone else's agendas or their own. (Note that it doesn't count if they're only taking independent action because the main characters have been locked up.)
It's all right to let sidekicks eventually outgrow their sidekick status. There's nothing wrong with letting your sidekicks eventually graduate to "helpful ally" status - or even letting let them strike out on their own.
Ask yourself: would the story still work if you cut out the majority of the sidekick's lines? If so, consider cutting the bulk of those lines out and/or replacing them with something that's related to the story, or that drives a story-relevant conversation.
- If you want to add a sidekick to a story, make sure that you're doing it for the right reason: because the story itself would benefit from another character, rather than for the simple sake of having a sidekick or a designated kid appeal character.
- Make your sidekicks their own people, with their own unique opinions, feelings, skills, and lives. Develop them as thoroughly as you would any other character.
- Don't give them free passes on being annoying or causing trouble.
- Don't have them do or say an inordinate amount of stuff that has no relevance to the story.
- Don't make them nonsensical in some way or another, don't have them in places where they shouldn't be, and make sure they fit the setting.
- Let them develop and grow like any other character!
Also, you might be interested in:
On Writing Comedy & Comic Relief
Notes & Musings On Writing Cute Characters
Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks
Basic Tips For Writing Better Ensemble Casts
How To Avoid Creating Shallow Love Interests & Shallow Best Friends