Make new friends but keep the old

Sat Aug 13 2016

Ah, sidekicks. Those indispensable minor characters who, if you do them right, can add life to a book or even threaten to steal the show. Sidekicks come in two basic forms: new friends and old friends. Each has different applications in story-craft.

Make new friends

Sidekicks are often new acquaintances for your main character. Consider Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter, who he met on the train to Hogwarts his first year. Friends can't get much newer than ones a character meets on the transition from their old world to the world of their adventure.

New friends give writers many wonderful opportunities for showing readers what your main character is all about. This is because new friends act as stand-ins for your reader: they learn about your protagonist at the same time your readers do. New friends also create opportunities for mystery and drama.

Let us watch the relationship develop

New friends mean new relationships. When a relationship starts, platonic or otherwise, both parties must share of themselves in order to build trust with the other. What they choose to share and how they share it speaks volumes.

Is your main character warm and open with this new friend, inviting and generous with his or her time and attention? Or is your main character stand-offish, closed and guarded, seeming always to give the new sidekick the brush-off as quickly as possible? Personality traits that relate to how people treat one another show themselves very clearly as readers watch a character develop a relationship with a new sidekick.

New friends help avoid infodumps

New friends are also just as clueless about your protagonist as the reader is. Neither of us are up to speed on your main character's life. The sidekick hasn't yet learned what the protagonist can do, what they know, what they have been through, what practical and political realities matter to the protagonist's life.

That cluelessness is a wonderful tool, because it gives the writer natural opportunities to explain things to the reader. Any time the writer worries that they need to explain something to the reader, they can instead explain it to the sidekick, who probably also doesn't know the thing in question. In this way, writers can avoid boring, exposition-heavy blocks of narration (a.k.a. "infodumps") by replacing them with much more lively dialogue sequences between.

For example, if the reader truly needs to know that the bridge leading into town was built by a sleazy, lowball contractor, chances are the sidekick does too. And if the sidekick is a new friend from out of town, the protagonist has every reason in the world to explain it. It feels natural, because in that situation, it is.

Can we trust the new friend?

But, as unknown as the new friend is to the protagonist, the reverse is also true. The protagonist starts out clueless about the sidekick. The sidekick must work to earn the protagonist's trust and the reader's trust as well. This gives you the delicious opportunity to create some drama and mystery, if that's appropriate for your story, as the protagonist wonders whether the sidekick is on the up-and-up.

Especially in mysteries crime dramas, and other such mainstream genres, dangling the tantalizing possibility that a trusted sidekick might really be a spy, a mole, or a back-stabber can really ratchet up the drama in the book. In this situation, it is the protagonist who is the stand-in for the reader. That's half the fun of reading an engaging novel, taking turns putting yourself into the shoes of different characters.

But keep the old

Old friends are just sidekicks who are presumed to be well acquainted with the protagonist when the book starts. They, too, are tremendously useful but give a writer different options and challenges.

Old friends already have a rapport with your protagonist. They've been pals for a long time, so readers will naturally expect your protagonist to behave more openly and honestly with this type of sidekick. Your protagonist's behavior toward and around their old friend indicates their true personality.

Portraying a relationship in full bloom

But be warned: portraying a well-established friendship can be tricky because writers haven't lived that particular relationship themselves. They have to invent and stay true to the myriad in-jokes and verbal shortcuts that old friends have with each other. Either that, or borrow these markers of deep friendship from your own life.

Take a look at the picture at the top of this post: what markers of deep friendship can you observe? Just by looking, how can you tell that those two women are old friends? Writers must include similar markers, ones that readers will recognize as signs of longstanding friendship.

Old friends create mystery around backstory

The thing about old friends is they already know all your dirty laundry. Not only have they already seen the skeletons in your closet, they probably know how the bones got there. As a writer, that's gold.

Where new friends have to ask about the past or be explicitly told about it, old friends already know so they can just refer to the backstory without revealing spoiling the details too early. This is a great way to make your readers curious as to what that backstory is. For example:

"Oh, god, this is the Ford Pinto all over again, isn't it?" said the sidekick.

"What? No! This is nothing like that," the protagonist replied.

"Ok, whatever. But it totally is."

And now readers are wondering What about the Ford Pinto? What happened? When was that? By making the reader curious about the backstory, you lay the groundwork such that when the backstory is eventually revealed, it comes as a satisfying answer to a question. Not as random information out of the blue. More on that in this article from a few weeks ago.

Old friends can be hard to introduce

With old friends, readers don't get to see the moment when the two characters met. Thus, writers must determine how and when to introduce the old friend.

If the old friend is someone the protagonist still interacts with on a regular basis, then don't worry about it. That sidekick should naturally pop up somewhere early in the story, and by watching the two characters' interactions, readers will deduce that they're old friends.

The tricky category is old friends you rarely see.

When writers introduce a supposedly old friend late in the story, and especially at a point where that friend's influence or connections or resources are suddenly of critical importance to the protagonist, it falls flat. It feels like a deus ex machina solution to a plot problem, rather than a character naturally calling on their network of friends and acquaintances in time of need.

Yet, people do have old friends who they are very close to but who they only see on rare occasions. Never the less, these old friends still have strong connections through their shared past with the protagonist. Just like your old friends do with you. The same is presumably true for any protagonist who is old enough to have a past.

This puts writers in a bind: it wouldn't be natural to the story to introduce that kind of sidekick early in the story. Yet if the sidekick doesn't appear until they're needed--which is the logical point for the protagonist to contact them at all--readers feel like the writer just threw that character into the story to solve a problem.

For example, if I needed a piece of legal advice I could call up my friend Mike from high school, who I haven't seen in years and mostly keep up with via LinkedIn. Still, he'd probably take my call and help me out. But if someone reading my life had no idea Mike existed, this would be a surprising and too-convenient thing for me to do.

The best solution I know for this dilemma is to leave the sidekick unintroduced until needed, but then make it hard for the protagonist to get their help.

Force the protagonist to contact the seldom-seen sidekick at an awkward time or in an awkward place. For example, make me call my friend Mike at two in the morning because the legal help I need concerns getting out of jail. Yeah we go way back, but Mike's still not going to be real happy to take that call. As a protagonist, I would then have to work pretty hard to overcome the awkwardness in order to gain Mike's help.

Just make it a challenge. Turn the situation into a mini-conflict, and it will be far more entertaining to read (and to write).

One is silver, and the other gold

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but relationships are a big bay window to the personality. Use sidekicks, whether new friends or old, and the relationships they have to your protagonists to show readers what makes your protagonists tick.

Who were the memorable sidekicks in a book you read recently? Share them down in the comments.