I was watching Top Gun the other day and thinking how I always liked Goose way better than Maverick, and it got me thinking on lovable sidekicks in books and movies. It's an often used trick in a book or movie, going way back. It's become a requirement in Disney movies, with the sidekick typically being an animal of some sort. My daughter loves Pasquale in Tangled, for instance. In fact, we found a stuffed chameleon at Rainforest Cafe and she just had to have it to carry around, as she aspires to grow up and be Rapunzel (sigh).
Before Disney there was Sherlock's Watson, probably one of the most well known literary sidekicks around (a relationship, in fact, copied in a Disney movie: The Great Mouse Detective). Watson acted as a bit of a foil to Sherlock's eccentricities. He also provided a bit of heart in contrast to the somewhat cold Sherlock.
Now, maybe it's just me, but Goose is one of the first sidekicks that pops into my mind. He was well written and played, lovable, warm and funny. While Maverick was, well, a maverick, Goose was dependable, loyal and sensible. He was a husband and father who sometimes egged Maverick on and sometimes tried to rein him in. Goose, in a word, was awesome.
So how does one write a perfect sidekick that hits all the right spots? What are the rules of sidekicks? They frequently get killed off when not a part of a series. If they're well written their death serves as a type of emotional blackmail to elicit sadness from the reader and willingness to root for victory on the part of the main character. Examples of this are Goose, of course, and Sid from An Officer and a Gentleman. *(I'm trying to use older movies here so I don't give anything away in a more recent one). Both are killed, and both breed a new determination in the protagonist.
The first rule seems to be that a sidekick must be likable. The audience wants to root for this person. I imagine this is the most necessary when the protagonist is not necessarily the most likable person. Maverick is a bit of a juvenile, Mayo is a bit of an ass, etc. Sure, we still root for the protagonist, but how much of that is due to the sidekick who we'll do anything for? If you take Goose out of Top Gun what are you left with? The only relief from a bunch of cocky guys is a light moment where we get to see those same guys shirtless and playing volleyball. Otherwise, the movie is strictly testosterone driven.
Frequently, the sidekick is also amusing, whether they're the class clown or just sarcastic. They bring levity to books and films that may be a bit heavy, dark or serious. They lighten things up, give us a laugh, and transition us into the next heavy scene.
They also tend to be a foil to the protagonist, someone who is their opposite. This causes a pleasant sort of friction between the characters, which can work in differing ways to control or encourage the protagonist. Sometimes it even leads to a fight or a break in the partnership, but they always eventually come back to each other. This opposition often includes the likable and amusing requirements, as their ideal protagonist is somewhat hard to like, as well as very dark or serious.
Finally, they are usually the same sex. Not always, but more often than not. At this moment, I can't think of an example where they're not both male or both female, but I'm sure one will pop in my head later. This makes them better able to be good buddies without relationship woes getting in the way. It also makes it so the sidekick may be more accepting of the protagonist's flaws. They know the protagonist better than anyone else, yet they love them anyway. A male and female might clash a bit more and be less accepting of the other's issues.
On a quick note, I've seen some examples in recent years of the protagonist being the one who is goofy, sarcastic and klutzy, always making stupid mistakes, whereas the sidekick is the serious ass kicker of the pair. I would have to say that I see this more often in female pairs than male, but that may just be because I read more within those parameters. Kim Harrison's main characters fit this bill with the protagonist Rachel Morgan, a witch with many flaws who makes mistakes, and her faithful sidekick Ivy, the serious and dangerous vampire. These books have also broken the no relationships rule, as there has been sexual tension between the two in parts of the series. To top it off, there is also a male sidekick named Jenks, who is a pixy. He provides some of the comic relief and is a lovable family man (he's also far too tiny to have a sexual relationship with). She just broke all kinds of rules, but it works.
Of course, these rules are more guidelines than actual set rules. Their presence may be common, but it most definitely does not appear in every book or movie. Sometimes the protagonist is their own comic relief, their own foil, and/or they are likable. The true first rule is that there are no set rules in writing.
Who are your favorite sidekicks? Are there any rules/guidelines you think I left out?