The Best Laid Plans

I got so much work done yesterday revising and replotting that I decided to run my errands last night so I would have an entire day free to work again today. I also had planned a very exciting blog post, some research for a project I have to present this weekend, and who knows what other productive tasks I could accomplish.

Then my boss called at about 10:45.

“Uh, yeah,” she said. “You were supposed to open the store today.”

Picture me like this:

*headdesk* (Though I am happy I got to share that video with you.)

This was extra-double-bad because my fiance and I share a car, and about ten minutes earlier, he had taken it to work. I was stranded, the bus only runs about once an hour, and the store—right on the town square—was standing dark and empty. Lucky for me, my fiance is a nice guy, so he turned around to come back and pick me up. He sat on the couch and watched me scamper around, putting my gungy hair in a ponytail, packing some bread and butter to eat for a “nutritious” combination breakfast and lunch, and generally acting like a complete idiot.

Five hours later, I shuffled up the steps to our apartment, ponytail sagging and tote bag overflowing with my laptop power cord and the empty bags from my “lunch.” My feet hurt because I chose to wear ridiculous knee-high boots with my gypsy skirt (fondly known by my fiance as the “crazy bag lady skirt”), my nose is running like a faucet because I’m still not over the bronchitis of doom, and the only thing I’ve eaten all day is said bread and butter and a handful of honey-roasted peanuts.

As I carried those idiot boots over one arm, tote bag slung over the other arm, my fiance said, “Now you really look like a crazy bag lady.”

It’s just been one of those days, readers. You know the ones. Somehow everything you planned goes up in smoke, your hair resists every effort to look nice, you realize you’ve been wearing your shirt inside out all day, the car won’t start when you’re already running late, the cat throws up on the carpet right where you first step out of bed, the toast burns, and you really wish you’d just shut your cellphone off and stayed in bed.

Lucky me, though, I have a job I love and awesome readers like you. And as Kristen Lamb said yesterday, a writing career is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have to work on a lot more than character arcs and subplots. Today was just a long-run day, and I’ll be the stronger tomorrow for it.

But if you’ll excuse me for now, I’m going to watch that chipmunk video about a dozen more times and help myself to a beer. And then this evening I’ll get some of the work I had planned done, because writing is totally worth looking like a crazy bag lady.

How Not to Be a Sidekick

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

These are some badass non-sidekicks.