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08 June 2009 @ 03:49 pm
In Praise of Sidekicks  
So, my topic for today was “Fantasy characters we admire most”, and in thinking of who I wanted to write about, I came to a realization: while there are many take-charge, butt-kicking hero-types I really like (Will Laurence from Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle, etc.), the characters in fantasy I really seem to like are the sidekicks. You know – the brave, loyal, often wise-cracking, usually unsung companions without whom the heroes might never achieve their goals.

One of the first instances I can think of in which I was aware of this preference of mine was when I first read Lord of the Rings. My favorite character was not conflicted Frodo or dashing Aragorn – it was steady, stalwart Sam. (OK, full disclosure: Aragorn is my favorite in the movies, because, hello – Viggo Mortensen! But Sam is still my favorite in the books.) Then, of course, there are the Harry Potter books. I like Harry well enough (except in book 5, when I wanted to slap him a good bit of the time), but I adore Ron and Hermione. My favorite character in the Chronicles of Narnia, meanwhile, is Lucy, and while it might seem odd to think of her as a sidekick, since she is so central to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and clearly intended by C.S. Lewis to serve as the reader’s surrogate within the world of the books, if you see Aslan as the hero of the Chronicles, Lucy definitely fills a sidekick role. So what is it about this type of character that speaks to me so much? Is it something unique to the genre of fantasy?

I think maybe it is. In an essay for School Library Journal, Tamora Pierce wrote that “fantasy, more than any other genre, is a literature of empowerment. In the real world, kids have little say. This is a given; it is the nature of childhood. In fantasy, however short, fat, unbeautiful, weak, dreamy, or unlearned individuals may be, they find a realm in which those things are negated by strength.” Pierce is referring primarily here to the thrill a reader can experience riding along with a hero on his (or her) quest, meeting unspeakable challenges and emerging triumphant. But I wonder if there isn’t something empowering about hanging out with the sidekicks as well. In real life, very few readers will fulfill a prophesied destiny, a la, say, Harry, but many will have problems with, school, girls, and money, a la Ron. Sidekicks have to deal with the boring, mundane aspects of life that often seem not to touch the heroes, and that makes them feel more like us.

To jump media for a moment, one of my all-time favorite TV shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But not necessarily because of Buffy. I like Buffy. I feel for her. I admire her. But it’s her Scoobies I really identify with, and to a large extent, Xander in particular. Xander has no powers. He’s not particularly smart. He’s not particularly strong. He’s funny, but beyond that, he doesn’t seem all that special on the outside (an observation Cordelia makes in typically snarky Cordelia fashion in one of the show’s best episodes “The Zeppo”). But he does serve one very important role, as he points out to Dawn in season 7: he sees things clearly. In a world where humanity can become buried under magic and monsters and demons and cataclysms, Xander is the one who keeps everyone grounded, who keeps them all on track, largely by virtue of his sheer ordinariness. And isn’t there something great in that? Most of us will never achieve fame, glory, and riches, but we can be a good friend. We can keep fighting the good fight on behalf of those we love. And when we see ourselves reflected back to us in the pages of the books (or shows, or movies) that we love, we can see the value of those actions and be proud. That, to my mind, is what makes the sidekicks great.

So, anyone else want to chime in here? Do you love the sidekicks? If so, which ones in particular? Are there other characters you connect with more? Go ahead – the floor is open :).

Alison Ching
Current Music: Flight of the Conchords
ebooraem on June 8th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
Interesting point, about sidekicks being our way "in" as normal, non-heroic humans. In most cases, even the hero is "just like us" in the beginning, but especially when a series goes on for a while it would be easy to forget that Harry (and Frodo) started out as schmucks like us. Ron and Sam are our way to stay in touch once the main character comes into his own.

This is one of the many ways in which books outperform movies. A movie sidekick is more likely to be one-dimensional or played solely for laughs. Except in Sorceror's Stone, Movie Ron lacks Book Ron's courage and brains, seems to me, although both provide comic relief. (Lord of the Rings did fairly well on this score, although I thought Pippin and Merry lost some depth.)
barnwulf on June 8th, 2009 10:23 pm (UTC)
Interesting entry! I enjoyed reading it.

Costis in KING OF ATTOLIA isn't technically a sidekick, but he serves a similar function, helping us (and the rest of the Attolian army) come to understand Gen in a different way. Watching him undergo his transformation in his opinion of Gen is wonderful.

Another one I really like is Ged's kind, thoughtful, intensely loyal friend Vetch in A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA.
Both Costis and Vetch are perfect foils for the main characters; Ged's pride is set against Vetch's humility, for example, and Costis's utter straightforwardness comments on Gen's cunning.
mike_jung on June 8th, 2009 10:30 pm (UTC)
I always liked Joel from Suzy McKee Charnas' SORCERY HALL books - he was just so realistically difficult and teenage-boyish. I liked how bitter he was about being held captive in THE BRONZE KING, and how simultaneously nervy and stupid he was about reassembling and trying to play Paavo's busted-up violin...
(Anonymous) on June 8th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
You're so right about Xander. As it happens, my dp and I are watching the fourth season on DVD. Xander isn't in the first few episodes much (given that he's not with the others in college), and the season improves quite a bit when he does finally re-take his place in the scoobie gang. We're having so much fun watching an entire season, one episode after the other. I'm loving Buffy all over again!

And as to sidekick characters, I'm reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Prachett (been on my to-read list forever) and am much enjoying the toad, Tiffany's new sidekick, who may or may not have been human once.
Susan K
dotificus on June 9th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)
Great post!

Although I don't think Aslan is the hero of the Chronicles. At least not in a main character sense. I think the children are in each book, until the last one.

It's interesting to me that you mention Xander and Sam because I think they are very similar. They're both brave and selfless.

And I don't know if movies count here, but Han Solo is one of my favorite sidekick characters. Of. All. Time.
ellen_ohellen_oh on June 9th, 2009 02:57 am (UTC)
Let's hear it for the sidekick! Half the time they can really steal the show from the main character - like Han Solo! The rest of the time they are an integral part of the MC's character development. It's almost unfair to call them sidekicks!
Jo Treggiarigio_t on June 9th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
I'll put my vote in for Lucy from Narnia (although I also don't think she is a secondary character), and add Puddleglum (The Silver Chair) and Reepicheep (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), both of whom had a profound effect on me as a child. Brave and odd and selfless and sometimes bad or hot-tempered- characteristics I look for in my heroes. I'll also second Ron Weasely and Hermione, and I wish to include Luna Lovegood in all her wacky glory.
I find it's true that oftentimes the side-kick (for lack of a better word) serves as a great foil to the main character. They are involved but outside the quest/prophecy/destiny which is propelling the hero and they can usually see things with a clearer eye. They're also good for delivering home-truths when the hero starts acting the 'savior of the world' part a little too much.
Re. Buffy- I'm re-watching the entire series at the moment too and loving it. Next up- the Angel collection which I have not seen in its entirety.
pjhooverpjhoover on June 9th, 2009 11:36 pm (UTC)
I love the sidekicks because normally they provide the humor!
I loved Merry and Pippin from LOTRs!

(Anonymous) on June 10th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
I love sidekicks too and loved reading your thoughts about them. Xander reminds me of a favorite Robert Louis Stevenson book, where the sidekick is basically the hero (Kidnapped!). The hero of Kidnapped is an ordinary, middle-class young man who goes on a long journey when kidnapped by pirates, and returns home still an ordinary, middle-class young man. He doesn't really have a protagonist's character arc. He's just David.