Monday, January 25, 2010

Friends and Sidekicks


There are books out there where the protagonist works his way through the plot solo, without friends to bump ideas or thoughts off of. Without close advisers to interact with. Without friends to support or even irritate him.

Those books tend to have a lot of internal dialogue or are man-against-nature stories of someone trying to survive while stranded out in a snowstorm or at sea.

But most books I’ve read have the protagonist paired with another character. And I think it definitely makes life easier for writers. Think of all the ways a friend can help us out:

Provide the main character with advice and insight. The protagonist needs someone to bounce a few ideas off of. I love sidekicks in mysteries—they keep the sleuth from having long internal monologues about who the killer is.

Take the plot on a different path. The friend could talk our character out of a potentially good or bad decision. He could create obstacles for our main character or help him meet his main goal.

Help the reader know what the main character is thinking or feeling about something. Maybe the friend actually analyzes the protagonist a little bit, providing us with some background depth. “I haven’t seen you this quiet since your mom’s death when we were in high school.”

Introduce conflict. Maybe this friend isn’t such a good influence. He’s been the protagonist’s friend since they were kids, but he’s been in and out of trouble his whole life. Maybe he drags our protagonist into his seamy underworld while our main character is trying to rescue him from it.

Help reveal backstory. Like the example where the character helps reveal insight into our character, the friend can also shine some light on other important, plot-related events in the protagonist’s life, through dialogue. We have to be careful not to make this an info dump and to work it in seamlessly.

Provide humor (to release tension), or a great subplot. Even thrillers can use a little comic relief every once in a while. When life starts getting really stressful and tense in our novels, a little well-timed humor can do a lot toward reducing it. Our protagonist’s friends can also provide us with an interesting subplot (extra points for tying the subplot into the main plot).

Do your protagonists have friends? What role do they play in your novel?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Sidekicks are very important, especially in the amateur sleuth books. We don’t live in a bubble of solitude and neither should our sleuths, unless they are just plain anti-social.

I gave Odelia Grey a whole cast of characters for her support team and with each book I try to rotate their involvement level. I think it keeps it interesting for both the reader and me. Each one brings a different bend to the tone of the plot. For the Ghost of Granny Apples, the ghost is the main sidekick and I have a lot of fun with her, but Emma Whitecastle has a couple of live pals, too.

Alan Orloff said...

Sidekicks are great! I try to make them much different from my protagonists, to provide contrasts (introvert vs extrovert, funny vs serious, law-abiding vs not). My protagonists have more friends than I do (of course, that's not saying much).

G.M. Malliet said...

It's hard to avoid giving a sleuth a sidekick of some sort. Otherwise your sleuth spends too much time inside his/her own head. (I'm not sure if the reader would notice this as much as the writer, but I think it would get annoying.)

Every Holmes needs his Watson.

Deborah Sharp said...

My Mace Bauer character has a whole slew of sidekicks: her two sisters and their wacky mama. The dynamic between them is responsible for most of the humor in the books,and they also keep Mace from coming off as a insufferable know-it-all by bursting her bubble now and then. Keeps it interested for the writer and the reader (I hope)

Cricket McRae said...

You are so right, Elizabeth. Sidekicks add a lot. I especially like the perspective they provide to the reader when Sophie Mae's first person pov might not be the most reliable.

Keith Raffel said...

Sidekicks are nice, but far from required. The greats like Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler did without them. In contemporary novels, Lee Child's Jack Reacher carries on the solo tradition.

Sheila Deeth said...

My first novel was protagonist alone; second was protagonist and neighborhood; third is protagonist and friend... It's definitely easier to write extra scenes when there's a friend.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Sue Ann--Interesting! That rotation is what I'm trying for my Memphis series. Otherwise I worried the cast of characters was going to get overwhelming. I'm glad to hear you say it works well for you.

Alan--Mine do, too! A ton of friends. I guess we don't have to 'write what we know' after all!

G.M.--It's more fun to be able to get some fresh air sometimes, out of the protagonist's head--for me, anyway! :) But you're absolutely right...that could be one of those things that a writing reader notices that a non-writing one doesn't.

Deborah--I like that! Keeps her down to earth and points out things she might have missed.

Cricket--An unreliable POV is fun to write. And the reader doesn't know what's true and what isn't!

Keith--You're right about's more of a hard boiled angle, isn't it? first person, usually?

Sheila--You're worked it from all the angles! I guess having a friend really does life and writing!