Dec 17 2011

How to Write a Good Sidekick

Published by at 5:24 pm under Sidekicks,Writing Articles

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.

 

(Amazingly, the nipples on Robin's suit weren't the worst thing Batman & Robin did to the character).

 

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.

21 responses so far

21 Responses to “How to Write a Good Sidekick”

  1. Danion 18 Dec 2011 at 12:29 am

    I don’t know… Chris O’Donnell was pretty hot. Reason why I watched that travesty. Interesting note: I saw Arkam Asylum came with the movie. They are desperate to get rid of that. As for sidekick, the Jedi approach I find works best of the master and the student. It is also the martial art way too right? But very much agree on the whining.

  2. B. Macon 18 Dec 2011 at 1:14 am

    “I don’t know… Chris O’Donnell was pretty hot. Reason why I watched that travesty.” Fair–the hotness of the actresses/actors was pretty much the only reason ANYONE watched it. However, in a novel, I would not bank on a character’s good looks to save him/her if he’s boring and/or aggravating.

  3. Ryanon 23 Dec 2011 at 8:03 am

    Great post! I put a link up on my blog – great tips! http://zombie-dinosaurs.blogspot.com/2011/12/700-pages-of-bad-sidekicks-on-planet.html

  4. Indigoon 24 Dec 2011 at 11:57 pm

    I would imagine that “sidekicks” find said term to be offensive, degrading, and insulting. They prefer the term “partner.” 😉

  5. B. McKenzieon 25 Dec 2011 at 2:14 am

    Likewise, I’d guess that quite a lot of superheroes would feel uncomfortable being referred to as “superheroes.” Anybody that doesn’t get uncomfortable when called a hero is probably a jackass. (“The real heroes are dead,” you know. Also, most people feel uncomfortable being glorified for things they’d rather forget–most people don’t want to relive messy battles and intense violence).

  6. Ryanon 26 Dec 2011 at 7:31 am

    Heroes would be most uncomfortable being labelled “hero” because they have their own heroes they look up to, like Bruce Wayne: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-hzKpBw-VKQs/TuFhAJaaexI/AAAAAAAABNw/Pczz0CSs1F8/s1600/Batman%2Bgitch.jpg

  7. Indigoon 26 Dec 2011 at 9:36 am

    @B.Mac
    Interesting theory; I never really thought of it that way. I wonder what other names/labels superheroes might use as alternatives if they are the modest type and don’t want much recognition for their public service?

  8. B. McKenzieon 13 Jan 2012 at 5:20 am

    “I wonder what other names/labels superheroes might use as alternatives if they are the modest type and don’t want much recognition for their public service?” It depends on the team, I think. In The Taxman Must Die, for example, most of the superheroes are civilian government employees, so I prefer “agent” for everybody (and “investigator” specifically for crime-solvers and “operative” for combat specialists). In Heroes, employees of The Company are “agents” even though they aren’t government employees. If the team is military, then I think it’d feel natural to use regular military terms (e.g. “soldier/airman/Marine/sailor,” military ranks, “serviceman/servicewoman” or “serviceperson*,” etc).

    *I wouldn’t use “serviceperson” unless you’re specifically going for a bureaucratic/PC feel.

  9. Sylaron 19 May 2012 at 9:02 am

    This is why Robin has recently been shunned in order to focus on the Dark Knight. Robin drags the character down.

  10. B. McKenzieon 19 May 2012 at 2:11 pm

    “This is why Robin has recently been shunned in order to focus on the Dark Knight.” Yeah, I think Catwoman has a more interesting relationship with Batman than Robin does–there’s more potential conflict and I think she adds more in terms of personality and skills beyond what Batman already brings to the picture. In terms of interesting relations with Batman, I would rate Nolan’s Lucius Fox, Harvey Dent and possibly Alfred as substantially more interesting than most versions of Robin I’ve seen.

  11. NeonFractionon 19 May 2012 at 10:53 pm

    I’d say lots of Robin’s potential is wasted because the movies are always trying to sell it as a typical father-teenager arguments with a superhero aspect. They never seem to try anything new. Sidekicks can be interesting, very interesting, just because they AREN’T partners. They’re superheros leashed to another superhero, which could bring up lots of conflicts about who really calls the shots and what orders he needs to follow. Not in the whiny ‘I could have handled it way!’ but in terms of strategy and morality. Having two leaders and no followers can really mess up the dynamics of a story.

  12. Ghostfreakon 25 Mar 2013 at 9:31 am

    My hero’s partner/sidekick doesn’t have any powers but she is extremely intelligent and resourceful due to her criminal background. She’s a master hacker, she’s skilled in parkour & she also has the ability to turn anything to a deadly weapon or as my Mom called it “weapon improvisation” I don’t think that she’s the stereotypical sidekick. It was important to me not to make her a lawyer, medic, or a reporter. So I made Skye a local tattoo artist, because she’ll be able to go places that the hero can’t to gain intel. Skye doesn’t have her own shop, she takes house calls. She’s basically what Huggy Bear is to Starsky & Hutch, if that makes sense.

  13. Elecon 02 Jun 2013 at 8:55 pm

    That definitely doesn’t sound stereotypical, but I’ll have to get a description of the main character in order to make a judgement about how ‘well’ she relates to him in a plot and ideological sense.

  14. Jade D.on 10 Jul 2013 at 10:13 am

    Most of the characters in my novel are of the 13-16 year old age group, but a particular 13-year-old forms a somewhat odd bond with her mentor (who, by the way, is a very human-like artificial intelligents unit) The AIU start to think of herself as a guardian/mother of her student. This creates some interesting conflict when her pupil is captured and she is given orders to stand down (ref. to instinctual-logistical-maternal conflict) Am I making the character to ‘cute’ by having her and several others feel similarly?

  15. S.Won 29 Dec 2013 at 9:41 pm

    To bad JAR JAR BINKS IS AWESOME

  16. Darkslowbro210on 26 Apr 2014 at 5:39 am

    In my novel, Cleft, Patman, and Ryter are more partners than anything. (Okay, Cleft is the MC, but MC≠leader.) However, I guess you could call Digit a sidekick. He’s more of a stay-at-home superhero, a mechanic, basically. He fixes the ship by literally fighting viruses, in a kind of RPG parody. (It’s a parody novel.) He has his “own” villain, that being the living glitch Malware, and gets touchy about anyone else fighting him. He occasionally goes on a few adventures, but his showdown with Malware comes long before the fight with main villains Clust and Red Flag.

  17. Wolfgirlon 15 Sep 2014 at 2:55 pm

    One of my main characters in my superhero novel is four years old. However, he’s well developed and has amazing powers. He can create force fields, has telepathy, and has super speed. Not to the mention the fact that there is nothing more embarrassing than getting your butt kicked by a toddler.

  18. Crosseon 25 Nov 2014 at 7:44 pm

    So the “side-kick” character in my story is a civilian woman (counter to the main character being a male in the military) who ends up being forced to work with Damien when the base they are on cones under forced/violent quarantine. By that, I mean that anyone on the base that isn’t part of the group doing the quarantining is captured and imprisoned for further testing on a debilitating disease that will hopefully be prevented from escaping. The two are experimented on together, as Damien seems to be immune, and Patricia is not. In their escape, they get to know each other, and Damien teaches her how to use various weaponry, and they act as mental/moral support to each other.

    Depending on the players actions, they may also uncover that she was, in fact, someone that destroyed the marriage of a friend of his, nearly leading the friend to suicide. However, she also retaliates by stating that he was cheating on his wife already, and she put it out there to end it. Trust ended up being demonized, but Damien accepts and understands her side of the story…after a short while.

    Patricia does die in the game,in one of two ways.

    1.)Trish sacrifices herself so that Damidn can escape the facility and stop his brother from flash-bombing (nuking) the quarantined area.

    2.) Damien manages to get Trish to safety in the confrontation, but they are separated. During that time, she is taken, by mercenaries, to his brother, Alexander…and his brothers boss. Once Damien arrives there (if the player made any cure) then both Alex’s boss will request (with guns pointed at both of them) that Damien tests his “cure.” If the players cure fails, Trish dies on the spot. If it works, then she is carted off to another lab to have studies done on her, to duplicate the cure (Damien does not remember what the exact chemical combination was).

  19. Crosseon 01 Dec 2014 at 1:51 am

    I apologize for the horrible grammatical and spelling errors I made in my previous post. I was using my phone, as I am now, to upload. I didn’t notice until I looked back at it just now, so again, I apologize.

  20. J.Croweon 16 Dec 2014 at 2:43 pm

    In my oppinion, Roy Harper in ARROW was relatively well handled for a sidekick/partner character. The only problem is that I can’t stop thinking of Batman and Robin (The characters, not the film) when I see him and Arrow on-screen. but then gain, I see that for the entire show (to an extent).

  21. Greyon 13 Oct 2016 at 11:27 am

    I recommend reading Sidekicks on Strike, where the sidekicks are tired of being disrespected and go on strike, causing the heroes to feel the heat. (Also, the sidekicks have wildly different powers than the their heroes, like the Batman character’s sidekick being an electrokinetic, and the superman-expy’s sidekick is basically green lantern.)

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