Ann Parker here, Friday's bloggin' child for the LadyKillers on second and fourth Fridays. Today, I'm turning over the virtual podium to guest author Joanna Campbell Slan, who will give us her two cents on sidekicks and why every protagonist needs one.
Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of Paper, Scissors, Death, which was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The third book in the Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series—Photo, Snap, Shot—has just been released. Visit Joanna at www.JoannaSlan.com or at http://www.KillerHobbies.blogspot.com.
Please welcome our honored guest, Joanna!
Pity the lowly sidekick. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Forever relegated to second place. But oh, so important.
When I think, “sidekick,” I think of some of the most endearing characters ever created. I think of Barney Rubble, Barney Fife, Doctor Watson, Tonto, and all the secondary folks stranded on Gilligan’s Island. I think of Melanie in Gone with the Wind. There’s also Spock, the first officer of the USS Enterprise. And who could forget Lulu in Stephanie Plum’s world? All are fascinating!
A sidekick is to a protagonist what ketchup is to French fries. Nearly a necessity. Certainly a dash of extra spice. And always rendering a more fulsome enjoyment. The best sidekicks round out the “flavor” of the protagonist by reflecting a part of his/her personality the reader/viewer would never otherwise know. Sure, you could eat your fries straight from the bag without any ketchup, but why would you? It’s that tangy tomato sauce that raises the taste of the potatoes to the next level. In the same way, a sidekick bumps up the wattage on your garden-variety protagonist. Sidekicks are fun for readers, and they provide authors with a delicious sense of freedom by doing a lot of heavy lifting during the course of a book.
A sidekick can boldly go where your character can’t. In my books, it’s clear that Kiki Lowenstein’s best friend Mert has been in foster care. It’s also clear she’s led a hard-knock life. Because Mert takes on those burdens, I didn’t have to weigh Kiki down with that emotional baggage.
A sidekick can reflect on the protagonist, allowing the writer to “show” not “tell.” They can also provide the explanatory backstory that grounds your book. It is Watson at the end of the story “A Study in Scarlet” who suggests to Holmes that his work should be publicized. Then Watson delivers to us, an adoring public, a series of narratives about the great detective.
A sidekick can say things your protagonist never would. In Photo, Snap, Shot, Mert tells Kiki, “I think you’re confused as a polecat raising a black and white kitten.” Kiki would never use the word “polecat.” She might think “skunk” instead, but Mert is a country girl. Somehow “polecat” is funnier than skunk, isn’t it?
One of the best rationales for a sidekick’s very existence is the “reaction shot.” In film-making parlance, this is a camera shot that cuts away from the action to allow a character to react. Often, it’s a character’s reaction that gives us insight into her soul. So in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett’s reaction to Melanie wanting to give up while she’s in labor tells us volumes about…Scarlett, not Melanie! For all her calloused behavior, for all her jealousy, Scarlett reveals herself to be both a good person and a loyal friend.
The sidekick can allow a protagonist to stay morally pure and unstained. For example, in Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books, his best friend Win offers up vigilante justice with a viciousness that Myron doesn’t have the stomach for. Because Coben assigns these scenes to Win, Myron maintains the moral high ground.
But I think the best use for sidekicks is to have them serve as bookends for your character. In Cut, Crop & Die, the second book in my Kiki Lowenstein series, I added Clancy to Kiki’s circle of pals. Clancy stands in contrast to Mert, because Clancy is a Jackie Kennedy clone whereas Mert is more like Dolly Parton. By positioning friends at the opposite ends of the lifestyle/education/social status spectrum, I broadened Kiki’s world without changing my main character one bit.
The next time your protagonist’s world seems a little bland, why not shout, “Pass the ketchup!” Add a bit of spice and flavor by pouring on a sidekick.