Monday, April 19, 2010


Companions. Doctor Who is famous for them - Leela, Peri, Sarah Jane Smith, Adric, etc, etc - but almost everyone has them. In some cases they're sidekicks of a sort for a single main character. In other cases a larger group sticks together. Frodo has Sam. Aang has Katara, Sokka, Toff (and Appa!). Zuko has Iroh. The list could go on and on.

Why are companions so important?

One reason is social realism. There aren't that many complete loners out there. People have friends that they live their lives with.

Another reason is that the main character needs help. When you look at the Avatar group (Sokka wanted to call them "team Avatar" I believe), it's balanced between different types of people. There's an air-bender, a water-bender, an earth-bender and a warrior. That gives them a wide range of skills and strengths that they can use to get through their stories successfully.

Another big reason is information management. The Doctor has mountains of specialized skills and knowledge - because he's a Time Lord! - but without the companions he'd have no reason to explain any of it. If you have a major character who's an incredible specialist on some topic, you can always show him or her doing what he/she is good at... but if you build in an information imbalance between that person and someone else, it gives him/her an opportunity to explain where that skill came from, or how it works, or any number of other things that would otherwise feel like blatant infodumping.

Conflict is another reason. Conflict can serve the purposes of information management, as when two people start arguing and that lets them divulge information to the reader that the characters already know (without using as-you-know-Bobs), but I've separated it out because it actually does a lot more than that. Conflict is an enormous source of drive in the plot. Ongoing disputes (of the right variety) between a character and her companion can influence where the story goes and keep us wanting to see what happens. Conflict can also drive character development.

Dealing with an introverted character is a lot easier if that person has a companion. You can make good use of internalized thoughts when you're working with the written rather than the visual medium, but still, internalization can only take you so far. A companion gives the introverted character a reason to try to speak - or perhaps a reason to try not to speak! A companion will bring certain topics into the introverted person's thoughts. Appa gives Aang a reason to talk out loud even when he's alone, which is very useful to the storyteller who can't make any use of internalization.

Companions also create wonderful opportunities to explore language. Some companions maintain an ongoing banter which can really add to the ambiance of the whole story. Their talk can be helpful for a story not only for content reasons, but for dialect reasons, and for the way it reveals aspects of the social contract in the community from which they (or each one) comes.

I'm not going to end this by saying you need to go off and give your protagonist a companion. Sometimes that's the right thing for a story, and sometimes it isn't - but it's worth considering. Even if the companionship is short-lived within the story, it can still be a valuable addition to what you're creating.

Chances are that if you've gotten much of a story written (especially a novel) you already have companions built into it. If you do, then it's worth looking at them and thinking explicitly about how they are functioning and what kind of work they are doing for you, the writer, as well as what they're doing for the other characters. That way you can deepen them, tune them, and strengthen them so that they're making a bigger difference for your story.

It's something to think about.


  1. Companions also play a strong role in satire/first person commentary in that they give the narrator a foil to blame things on or to be the butt of situations.

    I'm thinking in particular about characters like Mark Twain's Mr. Brown, who give the uncultured but real opinions about what's going on in the "Sketches", while Twain plays the role of the "proper" gentleman.

    In a more modern case, I'm still on the fence about whether or not Stephen Katz is a real person in Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods". In any case, he is the one who is always late, packs too much stuff, and can't figure out how to put up a tent. Great stuff, either way.

    In my case of coure, Gnarley plays that role admirably...but we all know HE'S real...

  2. Companionship itself is such a revealing thing in HOW the companionship is expressed and what is acceptable and permitted or even expected. To continue on your example: I think of Azula and her companions. She thinks nothing of mistreating them (consider threatening Ty Lee with possible death in her circus occupation if she did not join Azula), and yet, they are her only friends. This says a great deal about her character (in how she does need and expect companionship, yet takes no time to get it in the normal manner of making friends) and also about her cultural expectations (as princess, she can order it if she so desires.

    Sometimes, when I'm reading a novel (or writing one, yes), I find that how certain characters choose companions and how certain ones eschew it or minimize it serves as a remarkable key to characterization all on its own. As they say in fairytales, the characters you know the least about attract the most interest.

    Got me thinking all right. Sorry if I rambled a bit. My brain took off a hundred directions at once.

  3. When I first started my WIP, I don't think I realized this in such succinct fashion, but the need was there. My protag is withdrawn, potentially prickly, and defensive. If she spends too many scenes on her own we'd just get stuck in her head and it would be frustrating. She needs people to force her out of that, jar her out of habits and expectations, and just plain talk to.

    I find conflict between companions very compelling, such as the fractures that would crop up now and then between characters on Firefly/Serenity. As you say, conflict opens up the prospect of dropping needed information, and also of forcing the characters into new situations -- possibly ones they weren't intending to choose. Actually, I think this is what I've been struggling with during a current scene, feeling both a lack of conflict and improper motivations for what I know (and the characters will soon know) isn't a good choice to make, but needs to happen for plot. Hmm, that came out kind of more confused than I intended, but essentially, thanks for bringing this up. It's a good eye-opener.

  4. Timely post! I've been toying with giving my MC another companion - at the moment she is traveling with the antagonist, but doesn't know how bad he is. I can't decide if a sidekick would help the boat move along, or muddy the waters.

  5. Megs, excellent points about characters demonstrating aspects of their personality/character upon their companions. I certainly don't mind you thinking aloud in comments!

    Hayley, I think you've hit it right on the head with your prickly protag (how alliterative!). I'm glad this topic got you thinking.

    Deb, I personally would vote for giving her another companion. That gives her more options, and will make readers more curious. Who will find out about the bad guy first? Who is in more danger? Think about the Frodo-Sam-Gollum relationship. There's so much great tension there. Not trying to tell you what to do, but those are my gut reactions to your situation.

  6. Great post. Companionship can be especially effective when you want some complicated relationship dynamics to explore character.

    In a fantasy project draft I wrote awhile back, there were two "main(er)" characters, who were friends and the leaders of a group. But there was also a larger group that comprised the main cast for the group.

    One of the characters was rather introverted and abrasive and stuck closely to his friend, while that friend was more smoother and more outgoing, and had to play peacemaker a lot, especially when the internal conflict for the characters picked up.

    I might still have had an interesting dynamic with the two main characters, but I couldn't have developed them so well--or communicated their differences as clearly--if the other characters had not been around, because these two had a fairly normal relationship with each other when alone, but that dynamic shifted considerably in the group, as such dynamics are wont to do.

    While I think the common skill pool can be an important aspect of the story, I think the character dynamics are more directly relevant to the reader.

    As an example from another medium, often male pairs in anime have a similar skill set, but you get a lot of play from their personality differences, whereas the group interaction focuses more on skillsets. Not the only way to do it, but pretty common.

    On the subject of information management, I think larger groups can do more harm than good. It's just more of a pain to avoid infodumps when you have more characters who can be in different places, while pairs and occasionally trios can be very effective at getting information to the reader without seeming contrived, as well as avoiding repeats of what the reader already knows.

    I wonder what the proper balance between these issues would be. It would depend on the story of course.