I’ve been thinking about fictional sidekicks just recently. Not so much about what qualities actually make for a good, dependable sidekick for your novel’s hero, or what special physical or mental attributes they might require to support their hero’s adventures, or what complimentary talents, knowledge, or services they may be able to offer their hero in times of great peril or need. No, I was really thinking more about the tough time they have just being sidekicks.
Besides being the butt of belittling jokes, being constantly treated like second-class citizens and social and intellectual inferiors, they also get the worst of everything else, too. Sidekicks always have to take the seat at the back of the bus, always get the fluffy end of the lollipop, and always, always, get handed the shitty end of the stick.
They generally get treated like doormats and thoroughly taken for granted by their hero, and are patronised and assumed to be impotent, worshipping dolts by their hero’s current squeeze, as well as being looked down upon as humble serfs without a life or thoughts of their own by their hero’s friends and enemies alike. On top of this, they usually suffer the worst indignities in any adventure, gain the least reward and satisfaction from any victory, and they never get the girl. In other words, they get the worst of everything going both ways. These poor guys just can’t win, whatever they do.
Some writers might say that the sad prophecy of the sidekick’s very existence, this almost molecular-level lack of mojo, goes with the territory, that it’s the unfortunate and expensive price they pay for being what they are. But this is an assumption – a prejudice, you might even call it – that I set out to challenge in one of my crime novels.
In this book, I decided that one strand of the storyline would feature an absolute beast of a lead detective, DI Abbot, and his brow-beaten, forelock-tugging bagman, DS Parlour. I set out with the deliberate intention of creating a scenario where the infinitely more talented, physically-robust, socially-adept sidekick rebelled against his overbearing and oppressive DI and stepped out of the shadow of enforced mediocrity to take his rightful place in the novel and in the world, not simply as an equal but as an acknowledged superior.
In my plan, DS Parlour’s tale would begin with a subtle kind of unconscious insurrection that would steadily grow throughout the course of the novel into an overt, calculated rebellion, until finally, despite all the underhand ruses DI Abbot tried to run on him – withholding crucial information, lying in general and fibbing in particular, and unreasonable belligerence and intolerance – he would risk his career on blowing the whistle on his technical superior’s suspect strategies and bulldozer methods of detection. DS Parlour would win through in the end, exonerated and raised on high, elevating him to hero status in his own right. I thought this would be a good twist on the sort of things I had read in other novels.
Trouble was, it didn’t work.
You see, DI Abbot’s abrasive, abusive, confrontational, and obsessive personality and style of investigation turned out to mask a thoroughly decent, principled, morally-starched and highly intuitive detective with a savvy insight into the minds and motivations of others. It was precisely the myriad number of flaws Abbot had reluctantly sensed in his bagman’s psyche that set him against the DS in the first place. As I wrote on and on (and on and on – it’s a long book), Parlour’s motivations and grievances, his need to hit back, were slowly revealed as shallow, small-minded bitterness and envy, and his later act of supposedly justified rebellion was actually nothing more lofty than a deliberate betrayal, not only of DI Abbot but also of the rest of his comrades and the victims of the crime, too. For thirty pieces of silver, no less.
In conclusion, I tried to do my best by the sidekicks of the world. I gave them their chance to prove themselves. But in this instance, the sidekick returned to type, and the hero remained the hero, however unconventional he may have been. In retrospect, I feel that in some small way, I was trying to work against nature, and in that battle there could be only ever be one winner.
Nature ruled, and I was just along for the ride. A sidekick if ever there was one.