The Role of the Sidekick
Sidekicks have a strong association with genre fiction as secondary characters in comic books and superhero movies, but these characters first appear in the earliest mythological tales before continuing through the centuries. On first impression, it's easy to picture sidekicks as little more than humorous aides to the superhero, but these literary assistants perform a significant function in the stories they appear in. Examining the role of the sidekick in literature reveals the full range of their narrative capabilities.
The term "sidekick" is a relatively recent linguistic creation. Derived from the now-rare term "sidekicker," the new word is called a "back-formation," a new word created based on a prior term. In this case, both the original term and the modern one designate "a close companion" or "associate," sometimes a subordinate accomplice. The Oxford English Dictionary credits O. Henry with making one of the earliest references to the term. In his McClure's Magazine short story "The Phonograph and the Graft," O. Henry uses the earlier term, writing, "Billy was my side-kicker in New York," suggesting Billy was an associate to the speaker.
The First Sidekick: The Epic of Gilgamesh
The term "sidekick" may have been in existence for little more than a century, but the "close companion" character role has been present for a longer period. One of the earliest recognized literary works, the millennia-old The Epic of Gilgamesh, features a protagonist-sidekick relationship between the title character and Enkidu. Examining this work can reveal some of the defining characteristics of the sidekick.
In the epic, Gilgamesh is the tyrannical king of Uruk. He conscripts sons, even children, taking them from their parents, and indulges his lusts with brides before they lie with their husbands. Desperate, the Uruk people pray for relief from his oppression. The gods answer their prayers by creating Enkidu to distract the brutal king from tormenting the Uruk people. While Gilgamesh lives surrounded by ziggurats and towers in his walled city, Enkidu resides in the wild. When Gilgamesh goes to lie with a bride, Enkidu decides to stop him from reaching the woman and fights the king. Gilgamesh wins, but the two are well-matched. They decide to go on an adventure, intent to destroy the monstrous demi-god Humbaba, and then engage in several subsequent battles. As a result, Enkidu endures the ultimate consequence. Gilgamesh grieves Enkidu's death, then proceeds on a new quest, one with the greatest prize of all: immortality.
The epic reveals that the sidekick is a secondary character because the story's focus remains on the main character. Gilgamesh, as the protagonist, appears throughout the main story, but his sidekick occupies a smaller portion of the epic. As the main character, the king drives the majority of the action; in the beginning, Gilgamesh's behavior is what incites the gods to create Enkidu. After his sidekick's death, Gilgamesh's strong emotional provides impetus to further story action.
With Gilgamesh as god-like king and Enkidu a hairy wildman who becomes the king's servant, the two hold an unequal relationship. The imbalance is typical of the protagonist-sidekick relationship where the main character holds greater authority and control.
The contrast between the main character and the sidekick doesn't end with the power inequity between them. Gilgamesh takes sons, even children, for his own purposes, and indulges his lusts with women, while Enkidu is virtuous and innocent, free from civilization. The literary sidekick serves as a foil to the protagonist, highlighting character behavior through the difference between them.
The strength of Gilgamesh's emotional response to Enkidu's death typifies the strong bond between the protagonist and the sidekick. The depth of Gilgamesh's reaction demonstrates that he has changed from the oppressor he was before Enkidu, that he has perhaps taken on more of his sidekick's characteristics, behaviors that once differentiated them.
The Sidekick in the First Novel: Sancho Panza
Another early literary work further demonstrates the characteristics of the sidekick. Written by Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes in the early seventeenth century, Don Quixote is arguably the world's first novel. This literary first also contains a sidekick in the form of the loyal and relatable Sancho Panza, who agrees to be the squire of the delusional title character.
As with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the two go on a number of quests. Sancho Panza's emotional support of and physical assistance to Don Quixote typifies the responsibilities of a sidekick. Other characters routinely beat Sancho Panza because of Don Quixote's larger-than-life actions and way of life. Enduring those beatings repeatedly exhibits Sancho's loyalty to the protagonist, characteristic of the sidekick.
Sancho Panza shows that sidekicks assist in moving forward the action of whatever story they inhabit. Because of a lie Sancho Panza tells, he incites Don Quixote into a humorous quest, one that Sancho eventually believes. That untruth furthers the events of the narrative. Sancho does not, however, control the story, as the main character, Don Quixote, makes the majority of decisions about their quests--in this case, determining they will go on the lie-based mission.
In the same way that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are contrasts, the two primary characters of Don Quixote are foils. Through his generally sincere belief in reality, Sancho Panza represents a symbolic opposite to the mad, idealistic Don Quixote who challenges windmills to fight. Sancho demonstrates that there are realistic consequences to Don Quixote's imaginary quests by again and again enduring physical harassment.
Sancho Panza also demonstrates a literary advantage of the sidekick: humor. After Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet a tricky Duke and Duchess, the royal two realize that the lie-based quest Sancho set forth of transforming Dulcinea del Toboso from peasant back into a princess is a hoax. Taking advantage of their knowledge, the royal couple declares that the transformation can be undone only if Sancho whips his backside 3,300 times, a comic challenge to Sancho's lie. As noted earlier, humor, however, isn't Sancho Panza's only function within the novel, nor is it the sidekick's only work.
The Sidekick in the Mystery: Dr. Watson
While the term sidekick seems to designate the #2 person in a heroic relationship, that's not to say the sidekick performs inessential work. In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the sidekick serves a crucial narrative role. Like Sancho Panza, Watson is the relatable person working for the outside-the-norm genius. Watson provides readers, who may not possess Holmes' detective prowess, with a character they can more personally identify with. Patricia Bray refers to such a character as the "gateway" enabling readers to relate to the main character. Watson further makes the brusque genius Holmes a bit more sympathetic by demonstrating his allegiance to the detective.
The Sherlock Holmes mysteries show sidekicks sometimes can be the storytellers. Watson generally narrates the Holmes tales, illustrating how sidekicks can sometimes be the point-of-view character chronicling what happens, although the story is not theirs. Because Watson tells readers what's happening, he gets Holmes to explain step-by-step his leaps of logic and insights so the audience understands what's going on in a way that an interior viewpoint wouldn't necessarily reveal.
The dialogue between Watson and Holmes resembles that of a modern-day protagonist-sidekick relationship in the form of comedians on talk-shows. Johnny Carson had Ed McMahon, while David Letterman has Paul Shaffer. The patter going on between the two enables the protagonist--or show host--to carry on a funny conversation, rather than a monologue. The hosts provide the humor while the sidekicks tend to provide "straight" responses that enable the jokes, somewhat like Sancho Panza's generally realistic behavior to Don Quixote's ridiculousness.
Sidekicks in Summary
Sidekicks perform a number of functions in the stories they populate, not just serving as the companions and assistants to the main characters.
Although not as powerful as the protagonist, sidekicks move the story, albeit to a lesser extent than the main character, proving they are integral to the narrative. While not the main characters, they can tell the story, as Dr. Watson shows in narrating the Sherlock Holmes tales. The sidekick offers a contrast to the protagonist, highlighting his or her behavior for dramatic effect.
Sidekicks also can provide a humanizing view of the main character, making him or her a little more tolerable despite the extreme behavior that makes him or her a main character. Sidekicks can aid the main character's likeability either through their mutual loyalty to each other, or because the sidekick highlights the protagonist's best qualities.
The list of protagonists and their sidekicks also indicates that the relationship has tended to be between two people of the same gender.
Sidekicks have a range of functions that may not appear within every story. They can provide humor, as shown in Sancho Panza's case, or they can be more serious, as with Enkidu. In the Holmes' mysteries, Dr. Watson has the responsibility of being the narrator.
Enkidu, Sancho Panza, and Dr. Watson: These sidekicks may not be the lead characters, but the stories in which they appear wouldn't be the same without the sidekicks.
Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Assyrian International News Agency. <http://www.aina.org/books/eog/eog.pdf>
Bray, Patricia. Podcast 31. February 11, 2009. Odyssey Writing Workshops. <http://podcasts.odysseyworkshop.org/odysseypodcasts_31_patriciabray_protagonistsidekickrelationship1.mp3>
Bray, Patricia. Podcast 32. February 12, 2009. Odyssey Writing Workshops. <http://podcasts.odysseyworkshop.org/odysseypodcasts_32_patriciabray_protagonistsidekickrelationship2.mp3>
Cervantes, Miguel de. The History of Don Quixote de la Mancha. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35993/35993-h/35993-h.htm>
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm>
---. The Hound of the Baskervilles. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2852/2852-h/2852-h.htm>
Brenta Blevins lives and writes in the Appalachian Mountains of the United States, where she enjoys hiking with her husband. Her short fiction has appeared in such markets as ChiZine, Daily Science Fiction, and Sword and Sorceress. In addition to NewMyths.com, her nonfiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld.
NewMyths.Com™ is one of only a few online magazines that continues to pay writers, poets and artists for their contributions.