In the season 4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Fear, Itself,” Willow, upset at Buffy’s orders and doubts, storms off in the face of danger, saying to Buffy, “I’m not your sidekick!” We have to remember that in Willow’s mind, she’s the star of her own show. Willow the Badass Witch.
Sidekicks are boring. They say yes all the time, maybe provide some benign judgment about the protagonist’s mistakes, have no life outside the protagonist’s plot, and as soon as they’re finished pitching in, they disappear, never to be seen or thought of again. No one wants that—not even your secondary characters.
You don’t want to be a sidekick either. No one wants to be someone’s yes-man, laughing at his pal’s jokes and disappearing when it looks like he may get lucky, like the main character’s best friend in a sitcom. I’ve been there, acting as “So-and-so’s friend,” irritated that I wasn’t my own life’s protagonist.
Hopefully this advice—which my sixteen-year-old self could’ve used—will help you and your characters avoid the sidekick-trap.
1. Don’t forget to focus on your own plotline. Sure, you’re willing to help the main character of a given story, but you need to remember to face your own conflicts, as well. Although Dr. Watson is undoubtedly Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, in the current film series, he has his own life, complete with fiancée, addiction to gambling, and dog. He repeatedly tries to back out of Holmes’s shenanigans and focus on his own real life, but that addiction to gambling (plus some bizarre affection for Holmes) keeps him coming back for more.
2. Don’t take orders that don’t suit your character. A true sidekick (an uninteresting sidekick) will do whatever the protagonist asks, whether it’s something he would normally do or not. If Dawn Summers were truly a sidekick, she would’ve stayed gone after Xander kidnapped her to get her away from the final battle. Instead, she tasers him and takes herself right back to the heart of the action. Sure, she learns her place and mans Research-Central, but that’s because she knows what her powers are. If you don’t want to be a sidekick, you have to take a stand for what you believe in.
3. Don’t be too helpful. If all you do is provide helpful information and run for coffee, you’re definitely a sidekick, not a fully developed character. Unless you want to be like the squints from Bones, who just answer questions and then disappear, try to make your protagonist work for your help. Look at Jayne Cobb on Firefly: sure, he’s there when you need him, and he solves a lot of problems, but he’s his own man. He’s not reliable, even if he is helpful, and you never doubt that in his mind, he’s the star of the show. Plus, a little surliness never goes amiss in holding your own.
4. Try to stay out of trouble. If you’re constantly making your protagonist come rescue you, you’re definitely into sidekick territory. While I love Amelia Pond, she never quite exceeds the Companion status in the same way that Rose Tyler does. Rose fights her own battles and kicks Dalek ass, while Amy skulks back to the TARDIS when she’s ordered there, only to get kidnapped or possessed by a Weeping Angel. A true, strong character will rescue herself, at least most of the time.
5. Unless you’re dealing with your own Big Bad, try to be there for the final confrontation. Disappearing before the end and leaving the protagonist to deal with her troubles all on her own means you’re a sidekick… unless you’re off kicking ass elsewhere. Remember the Lone Gunmen, those goofy nerds Mulder occasionally got info from in The X-Files? They got their own show, but that show flopped because those guys just weren’t interesting. They also died in a weak standalone episode of the last season of The X-Files. Because they were so incidental to the protagonists’ plot, they didn’t even get a chance to join in the major fight. If you want to stand out in memory, you need to fight like the Scooby Gang against the First.
Bottom line? Be your own protagonist