Dec 17 2011
A bad sidekick aggravates readers and weakens the story. Over the past 25 years, the two live-action Batman movies with Robin have averaged 29% on Rotten Tomatoes. The four without Robin have averaged 82%. Here are some tips that will help you write a sidekick that will excite readers rather than make them want to stick their brains in a blender.
1. If a character is actually interesting enough to belong as a sidekick, promote him to partner or superhero. Calling him a “sidekick” cues readers that he’s probably a distraction from the character that actually matters. If he’s not interesting enough to be a partner, you’d probably be better off without him altogether. Alternately, you can have a character play an interesting role far from the spotlight. For example, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) adds an interesting ideological dispute with Batman in The Dark Knight but he gets extremely little screen-time and never participates in any fights.
2. Give yourself a reason for writing in a partner/sidekick besides adding “relatability” for younger readers. If you’re mainly including a sidekick for relatability, I think you’ll probably aggravate older readers more than you’ll please younger ones. For example, watch Robin in Batman and Robin, Scrappy Doo in too many Scooby Doo episodes, or Jar-Jar Binks in Phantom Menace. Did these characters at any point take the story in a direction that you wanted to go? Or were they exceedingly unlikable and a distraction from more interesting characters?
3. Here are some better reasons for having a partner than relatability.
- In Kick-Ass, the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy (her father) was probably the most interesting character dynamic. It was somehow simultaneously abusive and touching, both of which helped flesh him out as a three-dimensional character rather than just another ersatz Punisher. Also, having Hit Girl be insanely effective in battle was a delightful subversion that raised the stakes for Kick-Ass. (If you’re a superhero getting schooled in battle by a 11 year old girl, maybe it’s time to think about hanging up the tights).
- The character is a loner, but his thought processes are interesting enough that his interactions would develop him and/or the story. For example, one of Watson’s main roles is giving Holmes a way to narrate the mental leaps he’s making to solve the case. As the “straight man,” he’s also the audience stand-in, which helps create a contrast with the eccentric and unorthodox Holmes.
- You absolutely need someone with a particular skill to make a plot arc work, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t make sense to give that skill to the main character.
4. Make sure that there’s some substantial element of contrast. If the two characters are essentially the same, there’s probably no point to having them both. For example, do they have notable personality differences or background differences? (A riot cop and a hippie at a protest at a nuclear power plant at exactly the right/wrong time?) Do the two have substantially different capabilities? If your sidekick is just a lesser version of your Batman in every way, it might be hard to give him a role that Batman couldn’t just do on his own.
4.1. I wouldn’t recommend using adult vs. teen or adult vs. child as the main contrast. I feel like I’ve read it so many times before that executing it in an exciting way would be very difficult. However, veteran vs. newbie could be interesting (and obviously age could tie into that). The characters are less likely to be angsty stereotypes that way, I feel.
5. Please be EXTREMELY careful with these character traits:
- Permanently incompetent. Readers will mostly give you a pass on this if the issue is that the character starts out inexperienced/clueless but gets better. However, if the character’s main role throughout the story is to run off into trouble and get captured, I would recommend reevaluating it.
- Whiny. Red flag: He complains about other characters 5+ times over the course of a novel or ever uses the word “mean” as an adjective. (“You’re being mean!”) By the way, the only adults that may use “mean” as an adjective are statisticians (“mean life expectancy,” e.g.) and bad crime reporters (“mean streets”).
- Less intelligent than the average reader. Does this character have an IQ lower than 100? An immediate no is definitely an acceptable answer. An immediate yes could be acceptable because at least you’re aware of the situation. If you had any immediate response besides yes or no (“well, for his age…”), I would recommend reevaluating whether this character is idiotic enough to annoy many readers. As a rule of thumb, the author is usually the last one to know whether a character is insufferably stupid, so please be sparing with it. If you think that the character’s lack of intelligence is cute and/or funny, I’d recommend asking beta-reviewers whether the story would be better off without the character. That’ll give you some idea of whether he’s insufferable.
- Cloyingly cute. Thankfully, this doesn’t come up as much for sidekicks as most other types of kid characters, but using a kid mainly to inject cuteness into a story and/or get kidnapped is patently unacceptable.
- Any other traits or mannerisms likely to aggravate readers. If your character doesn’t say “Me sa Ja-Ja Binks!”, you’re already a step ahead of George Lucas.