The Sidekick – The Shadow or The Flame?

Young attractive Witch walking on the bridge in heavy black smoke.

When I hear the word sidekick, the image of Batman’s Robin conjures. Who could forget the guy wearing the green pantyhose? The word is forever linked with the lesser one of the power duo.

The Urban Dictionary defines a sidekick:

“A friend/associate of a more popular, charismatic person. The sidekick gains most of his/her acclaim from merely being connected so closely to the more powerful acquaintance.”

It’s easy to write a sidekick who follows the heroine like a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is long, and sometimes it travels ahead of her, but shadows rarely mean anything except symbolism.

And then an interesting secondary character flows out of your pen like lightning. This person keeps you awake at night and leads the story into unknown depths as a bright flame.

The safest route to prevent the sidekick from stealing the spotlight, is to make her/him inferior to the heroine/hero but where’s the drama in that?

Someone to save the day

If you’re like me, you write a villain who radiates raw power. He keeps kicking the hero’s ass, and you need someone to help defeat him. My recommendation is to make the villain stronger than the MC because this way you build pressure and suspense! You drive the plot forward with bloody desperation.

The sidekick can come to the MC’s aid at the darkest hour: when the villain is about to strike a spear into the hero’s heart.

The sidekick is abler than the hero under unusual circumstances:

  • The hero is wounded and unable to defend himself
  • The hero is under a spell or doesn’t sense the approaching death
  • The secondary character is the only one around and must rise to save the day
  • The villain’s BFF changes sides and become one of the good guys to keep the hero safe. He has the element of surprise on his side.
  • The sidekick betrays the hero and reveals that he has been working for the evil one the whole time. You can feel the salt stinging on that wound for a long time. This twist forces you to prolong the final battle- which is a good thing. Keep postponing the reader’s satisfaction.

And so on. I’m sure you have seen movies which utilize a lesser character to bring the plot into a grand finale via roundabouts.

Just Different

The sidekick can be a person who contrasts the hero, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson. Watson is a man of medicine with practical wits, and a war hero, who reflects the intellectual superiority of Sherlock Holmes. Where Holmes is in danger, Watson comes to the rescue. Where Holmes is at loss, Watson is confident because he is different.

Sometimes the secondary character, which you intended as a vessel for plot advancement, steals the readers’ attention. That’s what happened to Liva Löwe in my book The unholy Warrior. She’s the one my beta readers found most attractive because they can relate to her.

The key to the reader’s heart is arousing empathy. Keep your sidekicks relatable!

Sometimes the heroine can appear too strong and hardheaded, which is fine for the MC. But the presence of a gentler person who finds her courage when all else crumbles can have an earth-shaking effect on the reader.

In my book The Unholy Warrior, the heroine Rebane Nordstrom thinks she’s invincible, and the young German girl she saved is a mere nuisance to be dragged around:

“Each twig crackled under Liva’s foot and the fir trees slapped her with prickling branches. The willows grabbed the young woman’s shirt and her hair got tangled in the thorny bushes. The forest forbade Liva’s presence. Rebane advanced too fast for her to keep up.

“Rebane, wait!” she shouted when her friend’s leaf green camouflage merged with the shade of the grove.

Rebane turned around and her expression didn’t hide her frustration:  “You’re noisy like the running elk. The elk doesn’t care because she’s big. Everything cedes in front of her but you’re not the fucking elk, and nothing here fears you,” Rebane hissed and spat on the moss.

“I’m sorry. Can’t you see that I’m trying?”

“And be sure to step where I step as we cut through the swamp. The sacrificial grove is dangerous. It will swallow you if you stray one inch. I’d be unhappy to lose you, my friend.”

Liva’s eyes filled with tears. The words she tried to form stuck on her lips. Rebane took a firm hold on her smooth white hand and Liva squeezed her arm like she was about to drown.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Liva said but the wind which whispered among the trees scattered her voice.

****

At this stage, Liva is weaker than Rebane who is a trained soldier and a master survivalist. The women have just crossed paths, and I take my time to reveal Liva’s unique qualities. She has survived kidnapping and slave traders, but with a different approach than Rebane who shoots first and asks questions later. Liva is more than meets the eye. She is in touch with the divine healing power. Omens and visions give her understanding of what plagues Rebane. Mother Nature is a dominant bitch and she has a significant role in my book. Liva Löwe is an adapter: she molds her being to fit the surroundings.

Blurring lines

Is Julia a sidekick of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984? Yes and no. A love interest can be a sidekick. Winston and Julia rebel together.

Boy-boy and girl-girl pairs are abundant in literature and movies. If the heroine and the sidekick represent different sexes, you can write a sub-plot of budding love. One-sided affection raises the stakes a notch by introducing another level of conflicting interests. A disgruntled lover is a fertile ground for the enemy to grow resentment towards the hero.

Julia_1984.jpeg
Suzanna Hamilton as Julia in the Film 1984, MGM 1985.

But I see Julia as the last nail on Winston’s coffin. From the introduction of Julia, Orwell predicts the main character’s doom. To make the aide betray the hero is a great idea: the knife twists deep inside the gaping wound. In fact, Winston and Julia betray each other at the face of an invincible enemy: the system.

Any_Amasova
Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova in Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me (1977 Eon Productions).   

The representatives of the enemy can become sidekicks for the hero. Just one kiss from the deadly 007 and poof! A battle-hardened communist assassin becomes the Playboy bunny because sex makes her see the system of Motherland as evil.

Okay, I over-simplify.

I’m not complaining because Ian Fleming’s James Bond is excellent entertainment. The secondary character can exist as a borderline case through the entire Bond movie.

We know where Major Amasova’s loyalties lie when we see the ending of The Spy Who Loved Me.

The Warrior Mindset – How to Write Compelling Action

Futuristic warrior
Depiction of a warrior from the near future. Talking about kick-ass heroines…

Have you ever fired a gun? Oh, you have- good for you. If you haven’t, find a shooting range near you or ask the local hunting club to let you tag along. Just smelling gunpowder and hearing the blast noises (through quality headphones which protect your hearing) will give you a sense of the real thing. The rest is up to your imagination…

If you are writing about military action like me, you face a tougher challenge to get the facts right. The army uses unique terminology, and the warriors have a certain mindset forged through endless drills and hard work. The NATO and European armies have slightly different rank systems.

Add in The Russian Federation, and you’re officially in the same grievous trap where I found myself when writing The Unholy Warrior. I decided to take things methodologically: I researched until my butt hurt from sitting and my fingers were raw from tapping on my keyboard.

Join a writer’s site like The Write Practice where you publish one piece a week and get critique from other writers in exchange for you doing the same for them:  www.thewritepractice.com

You can also ask some of your beta-readers to point out flaws and factual errors. There’s always someone who knows specific things because he has a military background or just because he is interested in such stuff.

Getting the facts right is essential for gaining your readers’ respect!

You can also keep a memo on things which bother you and tackle the mistakes one by one. That way you can continue writing but know your weak spots need tending to.

When you’re wicked famous like John LeCarre, you can create your own terms and expect the spy professionals to start using them. LeCarre devised terms like “babysitters” and “lamplighters” to describe different guilds of the spy profession.

Different Calibers

Writing about guns and ammo is so much easier if you have some first-hand experience. Organizations such as the NRA and various hunting magazines offer advice on shooting positions, the common aiming errors and using the best ammo to kill big game. They have some excellent info graphs online.

On shooting positions, visit: https://tpwd.texas.gov/education/hunter-education/online-course/shooting-skills/rifle-positions

Do you know what a large- caliber rifle recoil feels like? If not, chances are that a relative of yours is a passionate hunter. Go along. You might be a pest to begin with, but the odds are that he loves to ramble about duck or moose hunting forever. You’ll learn something as you sit by the campfire and drink soot pan coffee. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you shoot under his supervision. I fired my first load of shotgun pellets towards a pinetree when I was fourteen years old.

The lighter caliber .22 is the best one to start target practice with. .22 LR is found in pistol and rifle ammo.

Read about different caliber ammo and what they are used for. The numbering isn’t linear or very informative. A bigger number doesn’t automatically mean a bigger bullet! Using the wrong caliber will jam the weapon and you risk serious injury or death. In addition to numbering, the ammunition manufacturer uses a short code. For example .Win means Winchester. Your rifle carries a carved text to signify the type of correct ammunition. Perhaps “win .308” like my Tikka T1 Tactical from Sako, a Finnish company which belongs to the Beretta conglomerate.

Finnish Hunting

Three-hundred thousand people are registered hunters in Finland, and ours is a small population with six million citizens. The government demands that each hunter undergoes a series of lectures and passes the final examination before gaining a hunting license. Gun laws are strict in the European Union and especially in Finland. Yet, commercial shooting ranges offer you a chance to shoot pistols and revolvers in the heart of Helsinki, our capital. In the countryside, almost every considerable village has a shooting range nearby for rifle training. People do hunt and are passionate about it.

Recoil

“Recoil (often called knockback, kickback or merely kick) is the backward movement of a gun when it is discharged. In technical terms, the recoil momentum acquired by the gun exactly balances the forward momentum of the projectile and exhaust gases (ejecta), according to Newton’s third law, known as conservation of momentum. In hand-held small arms, the recoil momentum is transferred to the ground through the body of the shooter; while in heavier guns such as mounted machine guns or cannons, recoil momentum is transferred to the ground through the mount.”

Source: Wikipedia.

Basically, the energy of ignited gunpowder has to go somewhere. It propels the bullet out of the barrel but an equal amount of energy kicks back towards the shooter. A heavy rifle absorbs some of the energy just lessening the force which hits the shooter. That’s why sniper rifles are usually bulky. They need to be accurate. Hunting rifles, which you drag around in the forest all day through the f***ng foliage and bush, are light and thus kick you harder during firing.

In Hollywood movies, we see a pistol bullet traveling far and hitting the opponent. In real life, it’s almost impossible to hit a moving target which is running zig-zag hundred-and-sixty feet away from you. Movie heroines hardly ever flinch at explosions. In real life, the sound of a .9 causes ear-splitting pain. Not flinching (as in shutting one’s eyes tight and grimacing not so sexy-looking) takes some heavy-duty training, not to mention a possible hearing loss.

As a writer, you can decide how much reality you want to embed. If you write fantasy, just come up with impossible things. Your readers will love them. If you’re writing a spy thriller which happens in the 21st century, do some serious research.

Have you received a blow to the head delivered by a powerful opponent?

You don’t have to tackle a man, or a woman, with a black belt. You can gain a lot of information by taking some newbie-sissy-level classes in self-defense arts like Defendo, Karate of Krav Maga. Ask your instructor to teach you what happens if you drop your defenses. One (gentle) blow to the head, and you’ll never forget that lesson.

It amazes me how short real-life fights are. Just a few seconds and a severe injury with long-time consequences has been inflicted. The winner and looser are found out in a blink of an eye.

Writing near combat scenes usually demands some bending of reality. We writers cannot disappoint our readers by a few lines, and that’s that. No, we must write different phases, evasion moves, near escapes and grabbing makeshift things like rocks to be used as weapons.

Attending writer’s festivals and happenings can link you with your thriller writer idols:

http://thrillerfest.com/

You can always learn from the best!

And remember, this advice contains just my humble, personal opinion.