Just what the heck is a sidekick anyway? According to Wikipedia, the term originated in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. In pickpocket slang, the “kick” pocket was the front side pants pocket, which is the hardest pocket from which to steal something. Someone – no one knows who – connected the hardest pocket to pick and an inseparable companion, leading to “sidekick.” Usually, when we think of sidekicks, the first one to come to mind is Batman’s sidekick, Robin. Created in an attempt to make Batman more appealing to young readers, Robin showed readers that it was fun being a superhero, adding light to Batman’s darkness.
Sidekicks aren’t just for comic books. In modern use, the sidekick is a wonderful literary device, allowing the reader to see the main character from the point of view of someone close to them. Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Watson, who was able to make us see Holmes as the genius that he was, in spite of his obvious personality faults. Archie Goodwin did the same for Nero Wolfe, showing us Wolfe’s genius and helping us see past the irascible front he put on for the world at large. The sidekicks let us see the clues, hear the alibis and watch the reactions of the suspects as they are questioned. Skillfully used, the reader gets all the clues, but oftentimes remains as stumped as the sidekick until the main character steps up and solves the crime. Mysteries with sidekick characters are a lot more fun to read, in my opinion.
The sidekick also acts as a counterbalance between the main character and the setting. Several examples come to mind from television, which gave us The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Lucy and Ethel, Hawkeye and Trapper John, and a host of others. Tonto helped the Lone Ranger see past his limitations and biases. If Captain Kirk can’t figure out what the aliens are up to, he has Mr. Spock to provide him with sage council based on scientific fact. Dr. McCoy is the other sidekick of Star Trek, providing all too human guidance to his captain in moments of doubt. Together, they keep their captain on the path to mission success.
Sidekicks can be goofy, slightly thick in the head, or experts in their own right, but they all have the same job: making the main character more accessible to the audience. The sidekick is the lens through which we see past the character’s faults, and see them as one of us, making the character interesting and ultimately likeable. If the audience can’t relate to or does not like the main character, they won’t stick with the story until the end, which is a disaster of epic proportions for the writer. So, when writing, if you find yourself not liking your character’s development, give them a sidekick, not a kick in the backside.