Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TTYU Retro: Why sidekicks are so useful!

I was writing a big giant set piece chapter some time ago, trying to make it more streamlined and more exciting than it had been before. It was a serious challenge because it involved a big ceremony - the Accession Ball - that had to happen in a particular way, and it was sort of one thing after another after another. Lots of events, and a bit of internalization by my protagonist. Not boring precisely, but you had to be able to buy in. Some readers I knew would start skimming.

So I added a sidekick.

I had a convenient character available. Tagaret (my protagonist) has an eleven-year-old cousin, Pyaras, who appears in the story and tries to become a part of his gang because other kids are abusing him. In the first draft of the chapter, I had Pyaras get upset and be kicked out of the Ball, and Tagaret went in alone. In the new draft, I had Pyaras go in with Tagaret.

Sidekicks are great, because they do several things.

1. They ask questions.
A younger kid, or someone who isn't an expert, can be confused by different points of what is going on, and create realistic reasons for your main character to explain things (or for bystanders to explain things). This spares you a lot of "show don't tell" effort by creating a realistic context for telling.

2. They inspire your protagonist's better nature
Tagaret is expected to look after Pyaras and make sure he's okay. Having him around gives Tagaret a chance to think about someone beside himself. It helps him be more altruistic, less self-centered, and also can create fabulous opportunities for him to make difficult decisions. "Do I leave Pyaras here and go out to see that girl I've been admiring - even if it means he gets in trouble? Or do I give up my chance with the girl and protect Pyaras from the bullies?"

3. They can create diversions
In the new draft of my scene, I decided to reduce the feeling of "lists" by having Pyaras act up. Now, be aware that you shouldn't just have people act up randomly - it has to fit in with what you already have going on. Pyaras has already been getting bullied by kids who think he's too big and strong for his own good, and more like one of the lower-caste soldiers than he is like a nobleman. Thus, when one of the soldier caste people appears in the ceremony, someone in the audience decides to needle Pyaras, and Tagaret has to stop him from trying to start a fight right in the middle of the party. This simultaneously advances their relationship, and Pyaras' emotional states, and it also lets me skip over some stuff in the ceremony that readers might find repetitive.

4. They can draw out your protagonist
Tagaret is not a super-introverted guy, but the Accession Ball scene doesn't give him a lot of chances to interact with other people, especially during the ceremony. Putting Pyaras with him helps because he can whisper to him and interact in an external rather than an internal way. Especially if the person you're working with is the strong silent type, giving him or her a companion to talk to will really help keep those scenes from becoming too slow and introspective.

It's something to think about!



  1. A sidekick can even serve as POV narrator. Think about Watson's role to Holmes'. A 3rd person narrator might have to do a whole lot of tellin'. Holmes as narrator would be overwhelmingly arrogant and conceited. Watson however can as you say ask the questions or explain things to his readers that Holmes cannot without losing sympathy.

    But I think your point that it enables some degree of action during info dumps is a good one.

    1. Great point, OFloinn. I was thinking of non-POV sidekicks, but you're right that they can make good POV characters for various reasons (relatability being a big one). Thanks for the comment!

  2. Sidekicks as pov characters can be seductive - for the writer's reasons.

    But I found one major problem with that: diluting the effect of the main characters.

    I can see it working well unless it makes for too many characters sticking their opinions into the story. And some of those characters being people whose opinions I don't care about.

    Some people like The Great Gatsby. I have never been able to read it through because I have no interest in the opinions of the Narrator character, Nick whosis.

    Obviously, a matter of preference and style and storytelling.

    I started the WIP with 3 main characters, and gave each a sidekick. The sidekick got far fewer scenes, but it was a way to slip in biased second opinions about the main characters. I thought it was oh-so-clever of me.

    And then I realised I didn't care about them - and I am now painfully taking the good bits from the sidekicks' pov and finding a more direct way to include the stuff I want to keep.

    For me, it has turned out to be keeping some of the sidekicks' thoughts in as actual dialogue - they say what they think instead of thinking it. It limits things somewhat, but spares me the sidekick's emotions, except as seen through the main characters' pov. I found I didn't care about the sidekick's emotions, so I couldn't see how a reader would.

    Some bits have been repurposed by having the main character muse about what the sidekick is thinking - and add the main character's emotions and opinions about that. Two for the price of one, as it were, but from the character I care about.

    Other bits had to go.

    It was my fault in the first place, for adding three more voices to the three I had. Too many heads, since I'm writing in fairly deep third person.

    I can see that using sidekicks as pov characters may be the only and best way when the main character is a jerk, or arrogant, as Sherlock Holmes was - but the time Conan Doyle wrote a story from Sherlock's pov is rather a failure (and I think he did it only once).

    You have to have them in there, somewhere - characters can't be who they are in a vacuum, and you like someone more if other 'people' in their 'lives' like them - measure a man by his friends.

    I'm not disagreeing, so much as pointing out that they shouldn't be allowed to take over the story without some thought to whether that is the ONLY way to tell the story. (Some day, maybe, if I run out of reading material, I will give Gatsby another try.)

    1. I see your point, Abe. Sidekicks can certainly be done badly. Disney, for a long time, seemed to use them entirely for comic relief, which I found hugely annoying (along with the fact that they seemed always to be wisecracking animals). One shouldn't certainly bring them in unless they are treated as people in and of themselves - in the case of Pyaras, his presence in the story is actually important in several ways, which made it valuable to bring him in more so he'd seem more thoroughly integrated. Thanks for your thoughts!

    2. Watson to Holmes; Archie Goodwin to Nero Wolfe. These work because, as mentioned above, the protag would otherwise come across as unbearably conceited. Plus, pace Anonymous, they do play important roles themselves; more so in Archie's case. (Rex Stout intended to blend the British braniac deducer-detective with the American hard-boiled wise-cracking detective; and succeeded admirably.)

    3. In addition, Watson and Archie are characters WE can identify with. Watson is the normal person's approach to understanding the Great One; Archie is interesting for his own exploits - as well as serves to be the normal one for us to identify with.

      As our gracious hostess's Pyaras does, they add personal value to the story.

      Also, some stories do fine with a multitude of voices; others do not: they become a cacophony.

      Almost anything an author chooses to do can be interesting and valuable - it all depends on how well the author handles that freedom.

      It is always nice to have a good working relationship with one's tools, and to know how, as well as how not, to use them for effect. I find that the most fascinating part of writing.

  3. How did you do this, Juliette - get comments from 14 months ago?

    That was fun - I now remember writing some of this, but it took me halfway through the comments.

    I need to know how to move comments (other than copying them, which I can do) because when I finish posting all the scenes in a chapter on my blog, I consolidate them onto a single page - and would like to preserve the comments.

    It is probably different in blogspot than in wordpress, but I was curious.

    The post is still a great post. I learn a lot from you digging into things - and then posting your findings.

    1. It's really easy. I pick a Retro post, go to Edit, and then hit "Save as draft." After that I can re-schedule it to be posted again, and all comments come with it.

    2. Thanks - that is very helpful. I'll try it in my context.

      For some reason the sidekick idea - and missing those few scenes from the pov of one of the sidekicks - have been floating around in my mind lately.

      My plan is to put them on the book's website as scenes that didn't make the final cut - sort of an extra feature (like on a DVD) for those who care to click through. That way they will have some bit of future life. I liked some of those scenes!