Side Order of Kick: The Wind Beneath the Wingman

No, not THAT kind of sidekick.

The lowly sidekick, treated properly and bought a beer now and then, can be utilized as a very powerful writing trope or crutch or supercharger.

I’m not talking about the usual wingman, here, like Robin, Kato, Jimmy Olson, Chewbacca, or Tonto. Or comic relief roles like Tarzan’s Cheetah or Wild Bill’s Jingles. I’m talking about a second character that enables and expands the lead, becomes a necessary part or subset of the hero and allows or forces him to be more and do more.

It goes beyond even an essential, defining companion like Holmes’ Dr. Watson, who, don’t forget, is the first-person narrator of the Sherlock stories and extremely important to the narrative voice and shape of those books. Because there are possibilities deeper than that, which can possibly be of use in solving problems beyond the construction of your main character or the constellation of the principle figures, but the actual form and procedure of your story.

Let’s look at two secondary pals in three series of popular crime novels; Robert Parker’s Spenser novels and TV shows, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar books. All three have a sidekick that enables and completes them. The three–Spenser’s friend Hawk, Rawlins’ pal Mouse, and Bolitar’s Windsor–are extremely similar in their essential aspects, and thus in their role as a component of the main character. All three are extremely violent and dangerous, and all three could be safely classed as sociopaths who not only excel at, but enjoy, hurting people.

So why is it so common for these very well-liked Good Guys to be tight with rotten killers, however charming they might be when not dealing out destruction and death? When you see something cropping up so often, and so successfully, you might start thinking there’s a reason for it.

And the reason is a compelling one: it allows the hero to be whole, to do things he needs to, but can’t. I’ll come back to the Friendly Psychopath Chums shortly, after a quick look at other kinds of symbiotic hero/sidekick relationships that illustrate what I’m talking about. The classic has got to be Archie Goodwin, the live-in assistant and factotum for Nero Wolfe. The whole mystique of Wolf as the ultimate inverse “closed room mystery”, remote from the scene by seeing all through sheer intelligence, limits him. He might be all kinds of wonderful at brainwork, but he can’t actually get out there and sift the clues, talk to the suspects, and otherwise detect. But Archie can. Viewed in terms of solving the crimes/puzzles, Nero/Archie have to be seen as a single entity. Perry Mason has investigator Paul Drake, but if he were confined to a room or wheelchair, that relationship of brains and brawn would become much more like the organic blending of Wolf and Goodwin. The important thing: Archie enables Wolf to do things he could not do by himself and thus is not a Sancho Panza, but an appendage of the figure of the main character.

Another companion who expands and completes the Main is Travis McGee’s dockmate, Meyer. Their close and sometimes touching relationship allows the rough, physical McGee to sometimes interact with characters with the powers of a wise, gentle, very erudite economist. It’s not that hard to find secondaries without whom the hero couldn’t do what’s necessary: R2D2 and Frodo’s Samwise are good examples. But I’m talking about partners without whom the hero actually can’t BE what’s necessary.

The three charming killers mentioned above are basically a solution to a dilemma. The good guy has to be good. Spenser and Rawlins can’t be callous assassins and remain sympathetic. But they can’t make their omelets without breaking a few eggs. So good thing they know professional eggbeaters. It wouldn’t be hard for a critic to say that the use of such characters is a cop-out to solving moral problems–a device or even a crutch. And it could be viewed that way, but there is a fine line between a using a crutch and having an artificial leg that completes you and allows you to be more human than you would without it. And that’s the way I’d suggest you consider the possibility of creating a foil or prosthetic enhancer of your main character: as a way to grant more powers and complexity to his reach.

That concept of reconciling violence with Good Guy is not an uncommon problem, and there are lots of visible dodges to get around it. A loved one in danger is most common, probably, if not the whole country/world. A reversion back to an earlier, more jungle-rules state. Getting drunk is not unheard of. There are ways of laying off what dramatists call “the fatal flaw” and remaining sympathetic. Macbeth, the classic Flaw Fatale, pulls off the “my old lady made me do it” excuse, as old as Adam. But for a series, or popular novel, you need to have a set-up that can keep working, a plausible denial. Psychology often describes denial and such extreme defense mechanisms as schizoid, reaction formations, or disassociation as the mind’s attempt to split off the problematic elements into another entity, and that is a similar stunt. The incorporated evil twin can get away with murder without the stellar ego having to fess up.

And it’s very important for the evil twin to have a separate ego, or he becomes a mere weapon the hero uses. If Hawk or Mouse is just a minion to command, it doesn’t work: the Good Guy remains as intellectual author of whatever befalls. They are part of the lead character, but separate in volition. You never see one of these guys just telling their lethal pals to go do somebody.

So if you are faced with a sympathetic main character who needs to do things that might not enhance their appeal, or just get some violence and rottenness into the novel or script without the hero getting his skirts dirty, consider creating an alternate ego for him. And it doesn’t have to be murder. How about stealing documents, scaring people off, suborning and betraying, being slutty… anything the Main and plot require.

And there’s a huge bonus involved: you now have another character you can dress up and dance around in all sorts of colorful ways. You have the nature of the relationship between the Main and Sidekick, itself a potential rich lode of humor, sentiment, or drama. And a license to have fun with the wingman’s persona. Mouse, Hawk, and Windsor are all three very fun, picturesque characters. Free of the restrictions of good taste and sympathism that bind your Good Guy, they can do drugs or drink too much, womanize, blast around too fast in stolen cars, anything you want them to do.

But keep in mind that whole concept of a secondary that is an aspect of the Main, enabling more, forgiving all, and making him more complete. It’s an extremely valuable technique. And, I would add, one more refutation of the hobbling “protagonist” model in which a book is all about one guy and seven dwarves.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Side Order of Kick: The Wind Beneath the Wingman”

  1. Interesting post, Lin. Personally, I’m more intrigued by a MC who struggles with their own morality, and love the ones who still do what has to be done, regardless. Yes, they need to have some kind of moral compass, but I like ’em to be off a bit–kinda like real lilfe. Having a sidekick to do the dirty work may be helpful when you write a Good Guy, but I rarely write or enjoy reading about really Good Guys. Although, I certainly can’t argue with the success of the writers you mentioned.

  2. I hear that. I don’t mind having the Good Guys be rotten. But it hasn’t gotten me rich yet, either. One thing that hit me on this: all male characters. My own reading habits influence that, but maybe there is some sort of gender divide that affects this and Nancy Drew or Jane Whitefield wouldn’t have a pal running around tossing people out windows. Are there any female characters who fit this mold?

    1. Leine Basso, although she’s definitely not a sidekick. And she’s not rotten, either. I’m sure there are female characters who fill the role, though. I just haven’t read them.

  3. British detective series seem to always have a “Detective Sergeant” character who fulfills this role, although often the minion seems morally superior to the MC. The TV version of the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter was like that, but the spinoff series, “Lewis” has a fascinating relationship between Lewis and his sidekick, Hathaway. They seem to take turns with the moral high ground.

  4. Thank you, Linton. An important, well-written (gee!) article, with many insights and provocative suggestions. What are your thoughts on a somewhat different Dynamic Duo–the ultimate fumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and the unflappable Jeeves, without whom Bertie would be as monumentally uninteresting as wallpaper? Jeeves assuredly does not perform morally reprehensible acts outside the hero’s ken, but he does literally MAKE Bertie a comic character worthy of our empathy and interest. or does he? Is Jeeves really the ‘hero’ of the novels and Bertie HIS foil? I’d be interested n your thoughts.

    1. Ooo, good one. And without Bertie, Jeeves wouldn’t be that interesting, either. Just a strait-laced butler. The two of them are both necessary for the thing to work. And comic duos don’t have to be that way. Lucy doesn’t really need Ricky at all–she’s the sparkplug all by herself. Any more than Gracie Allen really needed George Burns (though he certainly shined in his straight man role). Jerry Lewis didn’t really need Dean Martin to be Jerry–as he proved.
      But Bertie and Jeeves are nothing without each other, a true gestalt.

      1. Having worked on a lot of George and Gracie skits, I’d have to say that when it comes right down to it, George was essential to Gracie, because he set her up, prompted her, and provided an audience POV that steered the way they reacted to her. Very subtle. George Burns was quite a comedian.

  5. I never thought of it in that manner. It seems I did the same thing with my alien character. I gave him Rolfe, an American fur trapper who had no problem slow skinning a man or leaving one half-dead & buried for ants to finish. The alien is far too noble to do anything like that.

  6. I’m enjoying this, despite being one of those people who thought George Burns was the star of the act. It wasn’t until much later that I realised how clever Gracie Fields had been.

      1. lol – I’m not sure whether that’s better because my ignorance is excused, or worse because Allen didn’t get the top billing!

  7. Excellent post, Lin, I can honestly say that I’ve never given it any thought, the sidekick thing, until now, but I now consider it food for thought; a whole other dimension.

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