October 22, 2020
The sidekick, a character who supports the main character, is almost as much a part of a good mystery as the detective. The sidekick gives the detective someone to discuss the case with. The sidekick asks the questions the reader would like to ask when the detective speaks cryptically or uses scientific terms or big words. The sidekick's slightly off-kilter look at the case sometimes inspires the detective to look at the situation in new ways. The sidekick provides needed help when the detective’s weaknesses stall the plot. Many a mystery was hugely improved by a good sidekick. Where would Sherlock Holmes be without his Watson or Encyclopedia Brown without his Sally Kimball? Where would Chet Gecko be without Natalie Attired, or Timmy Failure be without Total? Since sidekicks are so important, it's worth looking at what makes a good one.
The Best Sidekicks Are Different
One important rule of sidekicks is that they should never, ever be interchangeable with the main character. In fact, the best sidekicks are as opposite the main character as possible. If the detective is into bending the rules to solve a case, the sidekick will be an extreme rule-follower. If the detective does poorly in school, the sidekick will usually be the sort who knows something about everything. Whatever choices you make for your main character, make very different ones for your sidekick.
A good example of this kind of pairing is Cam Jansen with her sidekick Eric Shelton. Cam is fearless, a little impulsive, and has a photographic memory. Eric is a bit of an anchor on Cam's impulsiveness because he's definitely not fearless. By being so different, a sidekick can help curb some of the weaknesses you build into your detective. For example, consider Sally Kimball and Encyclopedia Brown. Sally is the brawn to Encyclopedia's brains as she serves as his manager and bodyguard. With a character as inwardly focused as Encyclopedia Brown, it helps to have an active, physical sidekick like Sally.
Sidekicks can also fill in for knowledge weaknesses for your main character. A sidekick who specializes in a specific kind of knowledge (bug expert, computer expert, history expert, whatever) can sometimes pull out the key fact that pushes the detective in the direction of success.
In my series, Monster Hunters, which is an adventure series that mixes mysteries into most of the books, I split the sidekick role into two characters. My main character is a straight-arrow, who thinks things out before he acts, and who is brave and hard-working. He is also the kind of kid who does well in school but not at the top of the class. One sidekick is therefore very impulsive, a little bit chicken, and struggles in school. The other sidekick is almost rigidly ordered, super smart, and not so much chicken as uninterested in active behavior of any sort. He often provides information that the team needs, but only when he's not off avoiding the danger in favor of cruising the web. The three characters are very different and that helps the sidekicks to offer different support to the main character as well as introducing different conflicts and problems.
Sidekicks as Helper for the Reader
Mysteries are full of secrets that must be unearthed, so the reader needs to be able to stay current with what is going on. Without a sidekick, it can be really easy for authors to rely on main characters telling themselves things they already know. Mostly we don't do that much in real life, so it's best not to be too dependent on that in stories. Sidekicks can be really helpful to sharing information with the reader.
If your main character and sidekick are working out a mystery, it won't come across as strange if they talk about it. This saved many Sherlock Holmes stories as Holmes was not a character who talked through his process, normally, so readers needed Watson to bring out details from Sherlock. Thus, Watson would venture his own unlikely theories and Sherlock would then shoot them down, giving the reader new information or new perspectives on clues seen. Also Sherlock was often helping Watson learn so he'd quiz Watson to see if he had seen everything. All of this was designed to help the reader follow the mystery.
Because sidekicks can be so valuable for the reader, a writer might even decide to have the sidekick do the narration. This allows for more secrets along the path to solving the mystery (since the sidekick might not be privy to all the detective does). Sherlock Holmes is a good example of this as Watson not only stood in for the reader in question asking, he was also the viewpoint character as narrator (though he wasn't the main character). Because this is so unusual in storytelling for children, it's an idea probably best held for older middle grade readers and young adult novels.
Sidekicks Can Help Readers Feel Smart
Some detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Encyclopedia Brown are very smart, even annoyingly smart. But if your main character makes readers feel stupid, they aren't likely to fall in love with your novel. In a situation like that, a sidekick who is slightly less bright than the reader can help keep a reader feeling good about a series. Sure, the detective is super smart, but he's also weird—but I'm smarter than the sidekick so I'm fine.
If the mystery is a comedy, the sidekick might be absolutely hopeless and only accidentally help solve the mystery and will instead introduce tons more problems. In a case like this, often the only positive thing a sidekick will do is demonstrate loyalty and friendship, but the sidekick will add humor through the bumbling. On the other hand, if your funny mystery has a bumbling main detective, the sidekick may be the competent one who quietly pushes the main character in the right direction. In either case, loyalty and friendship will be a huge motivation for the sidekick.
But if the mystery is serious, the sidekick will usually not bumble, though they may be seriously less competent than the main character. With this kind of sidekick, the writer is working to create an illusion of competence in the sidekick that actually lets the reader feel smart because the reader manages to solve the mystery ahead of the sidekick or to see things the sidekick missed.
Sidekicks Are Admirable
Some sidekicks aren't too bright or are scaredy-cats or have other serious flaws, but one thing they most always are is loyal. Sidekicks care about the main character and no matter what other flaws crop up, that loyalty tends to make readers like them. What more do we want from a friend than to know that person will always be on your side? Sidekicks are like that and it's why they'll always be popular. Whether they are comic relief or a huge help due to specialized knowledge, sidekicks sometimes steal the show with their awesomeness, especially since they are sometimes the character you'd rather hang out with. So don't overlook a good sidekick. They can be an essential part of your mystery writing toolkit.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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