Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mother Goose and Other Lovable Sidekicks

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?

Happy Writing!


  1. My first (agented but unsold) novel was one where I moved Ado Annie (from Oklahoma - Will: Were you thinking of him when you kissed me? Annie: Of course not! I'm never thinkin' about no man - less'n I'm with him!) from second billing to first. Got rejected over and over again for being "too unlikeable" which may well have been flaws in my writing, but also perhaps a discomfort level with that character's perceived "sluttiness."

    I think being second banana gives characters more freedom to be quirky and fun, though there is that reversal sometimes where the main character is the goofball and the sidekick is the straight (wo)man.

  2. I always liked Goose better, too. In fact, he was the only reason to watch that movie. Well, Kilmer isn't bad. Top Gun has never been one of my favorites.

    Speaking of Sherlock, Jude Law was great in the recent adaptation.

    Now, I want to know what movie you're not mentioning!

  3. This reminds me of that Disney movie, Sky High or something - see, it only reminds me - I can't actually remember.. see, now I'm blithering.. Anyway, the whole movie is about superhero school an the nerds become sidekicks but, really, sidekicks are always the cutest and funniest and, in this movie, they certainly kick some superhero butt.

  4. I think of Dr. Wilson to Dr. House (Hugh Laurie), who are adapted from Dr. Watson to the eccentric Holmes. The sidekick always keeps the hero focused and moving in the right direction, hopefully.

  5. The first character I thought of was Lula, Stephanie Plum's sidekick in Janet Evanovich's highly popular series. She's a hoot, and more over the top (if that's possible) than the MC, Stephanie. Sidekicks often offer comic relief, as well. Fun post!

  6. I really liked Ron Weasley--at times more than Harry Potter. Ron was funny, vulnerable, and just plain likable. As far as in the movies, Ron almost overshadowed Harry at times because he turned out to be the better actor (just my opinion). It makes you wonder though. Was he really a better actor or was the character just written to be extremely likable and someone people could relate to?

  7. I'm with Kelly I liked Ron too from Harry Potter. I also liked Alice more than Bella from Twilight, and Kim more than Mia (a little more) in If I Stay. I don't always like the sidekick's more but sometimes they just outshine the MC. Great post.

  8. .....

    Oh sorry. I got distracted remembering the volleyball scene in Top Gun. Great movie.

    Anyway, I just watched Tangled. It was such a fun movie. Pasquale and Max were my favorites.

    I'm with Kelly and Daw on Ron.

  9. Beverly, that's true about being second fiddle giving the character license to be goofy or off the wall. It's that freedom that allows us to enjoy them more, as well.

    Andrew, it wasn't a specific movie, it was just that there were spoilers, so I didn't want to look at recent ones. I did enjoy Jude Law in the new Sherlock!

    Cathy, I like that movie! I keep hearing Bruce Campbell saying "Siiiiiiiiiiiiidekick!" The sidekicks sure do kick a little tail.

    Susan, I don't watch that show, though I know of it. I didn't realize they were a play on Sherlock. Interesting and good point.

    Lisa, I love Lula! Grandma Mazur is also a kick.

    Kelly, great example. I agree that Ron was often more likable, though he sort of drove me up the wall in the latest one. Throughout the series, it seems like he was flawed so Harry wouldn't be.

    Daw, I agree on Alice, as well. I'd read a whole book about her. Bella drove me nuts.

    M.J., it is a rather distracting scene. Hey, ladies don't get nearly as much eye candy in movies as guys do, so we have to go with it when we do. Tangled was a cute film. Also a good example of Disney's use of animal sidekicks.