The lowly sidekick, treated properly and bought a beer now and then, can be utilized as a very powerful writing trope or crutch or supercharger.
I’m not talking about the usual wingman, here, like Robin, Kato, Jimmy Olson, Chewbacca, or Tonto. Or comic relief roles like Tarzan’s Cheetah or Wild Bill’s Jingles. I’m talking about a second character that enables and expands the lead, becomes a necessary part or subset of the hero and allows or forces him to be more and do more.
It goes beyond even an essential, defining companion like Holmes’ Dr. Watson, who, don’t forget, is the first-person narrator of the Sherlock stories and extremely important to the narrative voice and shape of those books. Because there are possibilities deeper than that, which can possibly be of use in solving problems beyond the construction of your main character or the constellation of the principle figures, but the actual form and procedure of your story.
Let’s look at two secondary pals in three series of popular crime novels; Robert Parker’s Spenser novels and TV shows, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books. All three have a sidekick that enables and completes them. The three–Spenser’s friend Hawk, Rawlins’ pal Mouse, and Bolitar’s Windsor–are extremely similar in their essential aspects, and thus in their role as a component of the main character. All three are extremely violent and dangerous, and all three could be safely classed as sociopaths who not only excel at, but enjoy, hurting people.
So why is it so common for these very well-liked Good Guys to be tight with rotten killers, however charming they might be when not dealing out destruction and death? When you see something cropping up so often, and so successfully, you might start thinking there’s a reason for it.
And the reason is a compelling one: it allows the hero to be whole, to do things he needs to, but can’t. I’ll come back to the Friendly Psychopath Chums shortly, after a quick look at other kinds of symbiotic hero/sidekick relationships that illustrate what I’m talking about. The classic has got to be Archie Goodwin, the live-in assistant and factotum for Nero Wolfe. The whole mystique of Wolf as the ultimate inverse “closed room mystery”, remote from the scene by seeing all through sheer intelligence, limits him. He might be all kinds of wonderful at brainwork, but he can’t actually get out there and sift the clues, talk to the suspects, and otherwise detect. But Archie can. Viewed in terms of solving the crimes/puzzles, Nero/Archie have to be seen as a single entity. Perry Mason has investigator Paul Drake, but if he were confined to a room or wheelchair, that relationship of brains and brawn would become much more like the organic blending of Wolf and Goodwin. The important thing: Archie enables Wolf to do things he could not do by himself and thus is not a Sancho Panza, but an appendage of the figure of the main character.
Another companion who expands and completes the Main is Travis McGee’s dockmate, Meyer. Their close and sometimes touching relationship allows the rough, physical McGee to sometimes interact with characters with the powers of a wise, gentle, very erudite economist. It’s not that hard to find secondaries without whom the hero couldn’t do what’s necessary: R2D2 and Frodo’s Samwise are good examples. But I’m talking about partners without whom the hero actually can’t BE what’s necessary.
The three charming killers mentioned above are basically a solution to a dilemma. The good guy has to be good. Spenser and Rawlins can’t be callous assassins and remain sympathetic. But they can’t make their omelets without breaking a few eggs. So good thing they know professional eggbeaters. It wouldn’t be hard for a critic to say that the use of such characters is a cop-out to solving moral problems–a device or even a crutch. And it could be viewed that way, but there is a fine line between a using a crutch and having an artificial leg that completes you and allows you to be more human than you would without it. And that’s the way I’d suggest you consider the possibility of creating a foil or prosthetic enhancer of your main character: as a way to grant more powers and complexity to his reach.
That concept of reconciling violence with Good Guy is not an uncommon problem, and there are lots of visible dodges to get around it. A loved one in danger is most common, probably, if not the whole country/world. A reversion back to an earlier, more jungle-rules state. Getting drunk is not unheard of. There are ways of laying off what dramatists call “the fatal flaw” and remaining sympathetic. Macbeth, the classic Flaw Fatale, pulls off the “my old lady made me do it” excuse, as old as Adam. But for a series, or popular novel, you need to have a set-up that can keep working, a plausible denial. Psychology often describes denial and such extreme defense mechanisms as schizoid, reaction formations, or disassociation as the mind’s attempt to split off the problematic elements into another entity, and that is a similar stunt. The incorporated evil twin can get away with murder without the stellar ego having to fess up.
And it’s very important for the evil twin to have a separate ego, or he becomes a mere weapon the hero uses. If Hawk or Mouse is just a minion to command, it doesn’t work: the Good Guy remains as intellectual author of whatever befalls. They are part of the lead character, but separate in volition. You never see one of these guys just telling their lethal pals to go do somebody.
So if you are faced with a sympathetic main character who needs to do things that might not enhance their appeal, or just get some violence and rottenness into the novel or script without the hero getting his skirts dirty, consider creating an alternate ego for him. And it doesn’t have to be murder. How about stealing documents, scaring people off, suborning and betraying, being slutty… anything the Main and plot require.
And there’s a huge bonus involved: you now have another character you can dress up and dance around in all sorts of colorful ways. You have the nature of the relationship between the Main and Sidekick, itself a potential rich lode of humor, sentiment, or drama. And a license to have fun with the wingman’s persona. Mouse, Hawk, and Windsor are all three very fun, picturesque characters. Free of the restrictions of good taste and sympathism that bind your Good Guy, they can do drugs or drink too much, womanize, blast around too fast in stolen cars, anything you want them to do.
But keep in mind that whole concept of a secondary that is an aspect of the Main, enabling more, forgiving all, and making him more complete. It’s an extremely valuable technique. And, I would add, one more refutation of the hobbling “protagonist” model in which a book is all about one guy and seven dwarves.