Samwise Gamgee wins a lot of laurels for best sidekick. And oh, yes, he deserves it. It's not every friend who would give up cozy nights at the Green Dragon to be chased by Ringwraiths and orcs. But there are some sidekicks that sacrifice just as much as Sam, and they tend to get forgotten about. It's almost as if he shines so brightly that he eclipses all the other Samwises past, present and future. And once I got past him as I was collecting sidekicks, I thought of a few that put just as big a smile on my face as he does.
So here's today's post: What Makes a Good Sidekick. We'll count Sam out this time, because that makes it all the more challenging, and I like a good challenge. Let's see what we can come up with. :)
1. Sidekicks are loyal to the main character
Sidekicks will do anything for their chief. Perhaps why we love Robin Hood so much is not merely for his sake but also for the sake of his sidekicks, Little John and Will Stutley. Something about the group of merry men feasting about the fire strikes a chord with us--good deeds and hair's-breadth escapes and a sworn loyalty one to another. Take also the Scarlet Pimpernel--the line that rings throughout the series is 'nineteen men ready to lay down their lives for their chief'. Anthony Dewhurst, the ever-resourceful Andrew Hastings are two dashing English dandies that make a great sidekick.
But loyalty isn't always glamorous as killing deer and travelling in yachts to France. Take the five men who shipwrecked in Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. Captain Harding is the clear leader, and the four others show their loyalty by cheerful hard work and willing obedience. Brave in the face of danger, willing to be faithful with the everyday tasks, Neb, Pencroft, Herbert, and Gideon Spillet are probably the four best loyal sidekicks you could ever wish for.
2. Sidekicks support the main character's life mission and often do the work so the main characters can get the glory.
While sacrifice may be involved in this point, it isn't always. Sometimes a sidekick willingly supports a mission, such as a husband and a wife working together. Take Ginny Campbell from the Living Forest series. She was a real woman--her husband's sidekick so to speak. She married him and was a beautiful example of a woman supporting her man's life mission--that of observing, recording, and caring for animals.
However, in other more harrowing genres, one of the key plot points is when a side character determines to sacrifice their desires and comforts for the main character's mission, even with the prospect of no recognition. Take Merry and Pippin, perhaps the true sidekicks of LOTR. Much as I love them, I forget they exist. But they drew the orcs away from Frodo, faced the witch-king, and fought at the Black Gate--even though we really spent our time caring about Frodo and the Ring. They gave up a home in the Shire too (not by accident as the movie has it, but very nobly and purposefully) and determined that they were going to do their part to see that the dangerous mission came to its completion. But sometimes we forget them, because that's what sidekicks do--they sacrificially efface themselves so the main character can accomplish their purpose and get the laurel wreath afterwards. And they don't mind that we forget them.
3. Sidekicks stick to the mission when the going gets tough
Nadia, a beautiful example of a female sidekick, keeps Michael Strogoff on track when he loses his sight to the torture. (Michael Strogoff) Hans tells Axel that they're not giving up when they run out of water. (Journey to the Center of the Earth) Tess keeps helping Leinad even when others they know are forsaking the Kingdom, opening it to attack (Kindom's Hope). Even on a little less epic scale, Brent Carradine keeps researching for Alan Grant even when the evidence seems conclusive that Richard III killed the princes in the tower. In the greatest stories, the sidekick says "Let's keep on" when he and the main character are the only two who believe in their mission anymore. When all the orcs of Mordor surround them, when the scientists of ages stand against them, when they're out of food or trapped with no means of escape, sidekicks keep on keeping on.
4. Sidekicks bring hope to a hopeless situation
Best sidekick ever besides Samwise and Herbert Pocket is Mark Tapley from Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit. His whole perspective is that his life is too comfortable to give him any credit in being jolly; so he sets off on a"desperate" quest to make a living in America with the selfish milksop of a main character. And even when the going gets very tough, and he's so sick he can only write 'jolly' to show he's still alive and undaunted, he makes us laugh and brings us hope of good things. Sidekicks must give hope, because every main character is designed to reach a point where they lose hope. So it's the sidekick that gets the reader through to the end.
5. Sidekicks often stand in as the main character's emotional security or sense of fulfillment.
The Jimmy-John children and the Snowbeams gave Jane Stuart a little taste of what a functional family was like the summer she went to meet her father. (Jane of Lantern Hill) Luis, Martin, Cruk, Rokha and Morodach all in their odd and rough way, gave Erroll the family he didn't have growing up. (Sword and the Staff trilogy). Even animals sometimes stand in the place of security or fulfillment. Whether it was the little yearling from Majorie Rawling's famous book, to Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows, animals are famous sidekicks that give the characters a sense of peace and love. The best animal sidekick I recall that was noble without sending the reader into a torment of sobs (but don't get your hopes up; he didn't make it either) was Colin, Davie Crawfurd's dog in Prester John. Davie was on foot in a land of heathen savages, facing imminent capture and torture--but Colin searched for him and found him and stuck by him until the end. And it gave Davie just the amount of home and security he needed to get him through.
Sidekicks exist as animals or people to be the safe haven that the character needs--to give them a home when they are away from home, and to give them a safe haven to confide their fears and hopes in.
6. Sidekicks sometimes exist to give the reader the lesson of redemption.
In some cases, the sidekick redeems the main character, such as Sydney Carlisle trying to witness to the atheistic Drew (Cloak of the Light). But in some cases, the sidekick exists so that the main character can redeem them. Take Diccon from To Have and To Hold. He was about to be broken on the rack when Captain Percy bought him. Because his master was faithful to him, Diccon showed a strange softening and was faithful in return. Another sidekick, Duncan, (Sir Kendrick and the Castle of Bel Lione) is an impetuous young man, and his hasty generosity lands him in a spot where he needs a lot of rescuing. But as Kendrick plans to redeem Duncan, he realizes that he's lost some of the passion Duncan has for the King, and they in turn redeem each other.
7. Sidekicks defend the main character from threats to their safety.
Whether it's Naaman Ru defending Erroll (The Hero's Lot) Nehushta looking after Miriam (Pearl Maiden) or Jethro defending Amuba and Chebron (The Cat of Bubastes) every good sidekick takes their responsibility seriously to keep the main character safe. They take the shots, make their body the shield in the face of attack, and stay awake when the main character needs to sleep. In the sidekick's mind, their own life is dispensable as long as the main character gets through. And that is why we love them--because true love is a man laying down his life for his friends.
8. Sidekicks are often the audience relation point.
Here's where a sidekick often stands or falls. Sometimes we really relate to the main character, but I think when it comes down to it, we often see ourselves as the sidekick. The sidekick has slightly more manageable good deeds, a slightly more relateable character arc, and a little less changing to do throughout the story. A great audience relation sidekick is Hugh Beringar from the Cadfael mysteries. He's a family man--a well established sheriff in the region, that has a warm friendship with the main character. Hugh is the person Cadfael tells all his secrets too. And since Beringar is our relation point to the main character, we like that. Cadfael confides in us. He tells us secrets he keeps from Brother Robert and Brother Jerome. He gives us the first alert when he's solved a mystery, and Beringar and we are often the first to get the solution.
Good sidekicks help the audience relate to the story. We'll rarely claim to be the main character, but oftentimes we'll compare ourselves with the sidekick. And sidekicks are relateable to help us realize that the character change the main character goes through is possible for us too.
9. Sidekicks often balance out and confront the main character's flaws.
Phillip Melanchthon (Reformation Heroes) smoothed out Luther's often rude and unvarnished confrontations. Watson always did the polite asides and sympathetic exclamations when Holmes dashed straight into business. Main characters often have serious flaws, and interestingly enough, some never overcome them. But the sidekicks help us to be patient, give grace, and cover up the mistakes the main character makes.
Great Expecations is my favorite Dickens novel. But Pip would probably be a very irritating main character if it weren't for his sidekick. I love Pip dearly, but I think I love him so much because he hangs out with his friend Herbert Pocket. Herbert Pocket is a young man looking for a start in life, and he's the innocent, cheerful, glass-half-full perspective in the whole story--ranking right up there with Samwise and Mark Tapley. He does a lot of hard work for Pip and is a loyal friend. He's sweet and a bit naïve, but not as much as Pip thinks him. Herbert balances out Pip for the reader, and makes him a little more sympathetic, as well as teaching Pip a thing or two about what really unselfish people can do.
If you haven't read the book or watched the 1980s move (best.version.ever.) I'm sorry to say that you haven't made Herbert Pocket's really, truly acquaintance. That's the epitome of excellence.
Sidekicks, in a word, exist to make the main character succeed. Whether you have mysterious sidekicks, or honest and classic ones, sidekicks have made stories into classics for centuries, and their unselfish commitment brings a warm glow to our hearts.
There were so many sidekicks I couldn't include today. Wemmick, Pitch and Raz, Little Scout, Lawless, Pancks--a lot of lovable people. Some of my favorite sidekicks are of my own invention, and I'd dearly love to be able to put them in a blog post, but the time has not yet come. Needless to say, sidekicks are a vital part of good stories, and one we really connect with.
I think the verse from Ecclesiastes sums up why we love sidekicks just about perfectly:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. ~Ecclesiastes 4:9-12