We Get a Kick Out of Sidekicks Who Kick Novels into Overdrive

Sidekicks! Whether in real life or literature, the word means partners/assistants who are somewhat lower in rank. Yet sidekicks are often as interesting, charismatic, and comedic as their ostensible superiors — or even more so. And the interaction between sidekick/”sidekickee” — and the way they complement each other or not — can be fascinating.

A new favorite sidekick for me is Robin Ellacott of J.K. Rowling’s fabulous Cormoran Strike mystery novels — the second of which (The Silkworm) I read this week. This Robin to Cormoran’s Batman (?) works for Strike in his modest private-investigation office, but she’s much more than an ultra-competent secretary — she wants to be a private investigator herself, and helps Strike solve cases. Meanwhile, the brave/brainy twosome have a strong (though at times tense) working relationship/friendship that means a lot to both of them.

There are echoes of Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger in Cormoran and Robin (Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the Potter movies, even gets a cover-of-a-magazine cameo in The Silkworm), but Ellacott and Strike are very much their own characters in the mysteries written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith.

In older literature, among the most famous sidekicks are Sancho Panza to the eccentric Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (the two are pictured atop this blog post), Samwise Gamgee to fellow hobbit Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels and stories.

Panza and Samwise have many similarities — they’re both short, smart, funny, courageous, resourceful, and invaluable to their “masters.” Heck, they’re clearly equal to, or more impressive than, who they’re sidekicking with. Dr. Watson, though far from dumb, seems like almost a lightweight next to sleuth extraordinaire Sherlock. But the genial Watson is an important character — narrating things (much of the time), expressing admiration for/awe of Holmes, etc. He’s in many ways a reader surrogate, and helps ground things in a sort-of reality — like calm servant Nelly Dean does amid the hyper-emotional drama in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Then there’s Diana Barry, who’s often with best friend Anne Shirley when the initiative-taking Ms. Shirley gets into all kinds of quirky situations in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The more passive Diana tends to be a reluctant participant.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn is a kind of sidekick. Then, in the later Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is the main character — with Tom occupying a secondary role. A sidekick promotion!

Getting back to current fiction, we have Sgt. Frances Neagley in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. She appears only periodically — Jack often goes it alone, of course — but when she does show up she’s a great help to Reacher as he fights the bad guys. Neagley and Reacher share a military-police background and the qualities of discipline, competence, bravery, loyalty, and…being loners.

Can a character have more than one sidekick? Why not? An example of this would be Dorothy and her three sidekicks: the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

That reminds me that there’s something about the notion of sidekicks that often has them accompanying their “superiors” on a quest, an adventure, a trip to some destination. At minimum, they tend to appear in very plot-oriented novels.

Who are your favorite sidekicks in literature?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about gentrification, rent control, an expensive stairway fix, and more — is here.

82 thoughts on “We Get a Kick Out of Sidekicks Who Kick Novels into Overdrive

  1. Off-topic, but timely:

    Trump’s followers worship him. Even I find him somewhat god-like: Jesus turned water into wine, while Trump, just yesterday, turned rocks into firearms.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In real life, one of my favorite sidekicks (though in office before I was born) was Vice President John “Cactus Jack” Nance Garner, who, in the FDR era, once said the vice presidency “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” I think “spit” was used instead of the “p” word he really used. Veeps as sidekicks have ranged all over the map, which should make all of us a little Pence-ive.

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  3. I’m baaaack! Am taking a few minutes from my killer schedule, intrigued by the sidekick topic. I try to keep up with your column and the interesting comments by you and the old and new commenters. The Jack Reacher books I bought several months ago are still untouched… ☹
    The first sidekick I can remember is Huckleberry Finn, sidekick to Tom Sawyer, discovered much to my delight around age 12 while sitting on a bench outside a small library in a large green park. I so wished I had such a friend. Eventually I discovered mystery novels, and fondly remember a blind detective, Duncan Mclain and his canine sidekick (author: Kendrick?), and another one, British I think, John Steadman and his faithful dog – hmm, I wonder why I recall the blind ones??
    In time I discovered Science Fiction and read hundreds of novels; my favorite author was, and is, Isaac Asimov, particularly the “Caves of Steel” series with Detective Elija Baley and his sidekick R. Daneel Oliwaw, the “R” standing for “Robot”. The last book has some poignant pages when the human Baley dies and Daneel has to go on.
    In the context of the relationship, Asimov cover some timely topics such as bigotry and prejudice; he also addresses, prophetically, the increasing isolation of humans on planets where they totally surrender themselves to high-tech, live miles apart from each other surrounded by robotic servants who take care of all their needs, and never step outside their bubbles because nature disgusts them. Contact with other humans is strictly electronic, except when once a year a female travels – in a sealed carrier – to the bubble of a male in order to reproduce, but quickly returns to her own bubble where the robotic servants take care of the new human, if one is produced.

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    • Great to have you back, Clairdelune! Sorry your work schedule never lets up. 😦 But glad to hear you occasionally still have a few minutes to read the blog posts and comments here!

      If you ever get to a Jack Reacher book, I (and others here) would love to hear what you think.

      Thanks for the sidekick examples you offered. Yes, someone like Huck Finn would be a great friend (as he was to Jim).

      Mysteries definitely have their sidekicks — including animal ones, as you mentioned! I’m also reminded of Rita Mae Brown’s excellent mysteries, in which amateur sleuth Mary Minor Haristeen (who runs a small-town post office) has feline and canine help in solving crimes.

      Last but not least, I enjoyed your fascinating paragraph about Asimov’s often-prescient work!

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        • Ha, Clairdelune! Well, it has been a while since I read the books, but I think Ms. Haristeen mostly had dog help — with the animals definitely possessing some human-like thought processes. Obviously, fiction. 🙂

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            • I don’t doubt it, Clairdelune! I think my wonderful cat can do the same thing. Such intelligent animals! I’m just not sure he can do actual detective work, but, with enough treats, who knows? 🙂

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              • Well, my cat Jessie doesn’t seem to be all that intelligent, but at least she got her sweet personality back when we moved here to the Poconos. So perhaps she’s smarter than I thought! This reminds me of the mystery series written by Lillian Jackson Braun, who wrote a series about an eccentric, rich ex-newspaper reporter who had two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum, the series was named, “The Cat Who…” It’s been so long since I read any of these books, but if I’m remembering correctly, I think that they were more instrumental in solving crimes than their owner. My brother (who deals in mystery fiction among other things) met Ms. Braun and she signed at least one of them along with a stamped cat’s paw and signed it “Koko.” So I think we could safely call their owner as the sidekick as opposed to the other way around! 🙂

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                • Glad your kitty likes your Poconos place, Kat Lit!

                  Ha! I love the idea of the fictional human as sort of the sidekick to a fictional feline or two! That’s the kind of hierarchy many cats desire and expect. 🙂

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              • I once saw a funny photo on cats years ago, that had a photo of the world from the space station, which had the caption “Where in the world is my cat?” alongside a photo of a cat sitting on top of a keyboard with a kitty staring right into the lens of the photo that is in the way, “What is my cat doing here?” or something to do with that effect, Ha!

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  4. “Diana of the lake of shining waters….” 🙂 I’m LOVING all the Anne of Green Gables references lately 🙂 In that same vein of writing, when I was a kid I always enjoyed the Ramona Quimby books and her little sidekick Howie. Oh the trouble those two always got into haha. I don’t know if you’ve read the book “How to Stop Time” which is newer, but there is a fantastic sidekick-turned-villain in it that puts an interesting twist on the sidekick concept. A great book!

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  5. DAVE!!!!!

    I finished reading Killing Floor, I’m a slow reader…nawh, just not able to put in the time to read. I think I’m a fan now.

    I started to think on how I could sell you the Joker ‘s insanity (Hey! the Batman comics have spun some graphic novels and since they have NOVEL in the description I say they fit here) as Batman’s sidekick rather than Robin. I think the Joker ‘s insanity would be a sidekick of sorts to Batman’s mental anguish ( the real protagonist if you ask me) but then it hit me, why go with the literally stretch when there’s Bram Stoker’s Renfield.

    In Dracula, Renfield is more than a lackey or a dangerous bug eating asylum inmate; he is the daytime guard to Mr. fangs himself. Renfield is obsessed with blood as a life source and serves his master in the hopes of becoming like Dracula. Something rattles him from his lunacy as he tries to help Mina Harker escape the fate he himself wanted, a hero? A crazy man? Maybe both. All I know is that I need to find a way to sell you Batman as a Novel 😀

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    • Thank you, Jack, for the interesting comment! (And the humor. 🙂 )

      Great that you’ve joined the Reacher “fan club”! I think that “Killing Floor” debut is one of the best of the 20-plus books in Lee Child’s series, but most of the other installments are excellent, too.

      Fascinating sidekick theory re Batman and The Joker’s psyches. I like it!

      And a great paragraph about Renfield’s words, thoughts, and actions. Unfortunately, I read Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” so long ago that I barely remember anything about that character. 😦

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  6. Shakespeare has some really unusual sidekick characters that completely break the mold, I think – for example Puck, who although technically Oberon and Titania’s sidekick takes on an important role of his own, or the recurring “jester” characters (Feste, Touchstone) who although serving as a sort of Greek chorus are significant characters of their own.

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  7. Very true, though as a bonus for all he does, he gets a room for free in a gorgeous Brownstone, as well as able to eat meals prepared by a gourmet chef. Not a bad deal overall. 🙂

    So, once again I’ll go off topic, as I’m reflecting on this past horrible week, whether it’s from bomb scares to another mass killing. Will this never end?!. It doesn’t appear to do so, especially with our present leader, who’d rather make a joke about having “a bad hair day,” rather than be consoler-in-chief instead!

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    • Pretty good recompense for all his work, Kat Lit!

      Yes, the past few days have been beyond horrific. And Trump indirectly encouraging this violence, while not changing his actions and words (other than a few token insincere statements he’s basically forced to mouth) after the tragic events. Trump is totally incapable of offering consolation; probably the only thing he’s upset about is that the news has not been totally focused on him the past few days, and that all this carnage and attempted carnage might possibly (though not definitely) hurt Republicans in next week’s elections.

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      • I’ve been thinking about the Jewish religion, especially about the Jewish people who were killed in the latest mass shooting. I’m not a believer at all, but for some reason, I feel a special affinity for Jews. Perhaps it’s because they are a very vibrant community in this country. Several mystery writers are part of this community, especially Faye Kellerman, but mostly by the Harry Kelerman mystery novels about Rabbi Small that riffed on the day of the week. This is one of the mysteries that got me through a terrible time, as well as the Dorothy Gilman novels about Mrs. Pollifax that got me through the rest of it. It’s amazing how much these books meant to me!

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        • So horrific and tragic what happened in Pittsburgh. Indirectly encouraged by Trump’s white-supremacist words and actions. A vile belief system that’s mostly anti-people of color but also seems to consider Jewish people an “other,” too — not really white.

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        • I suppose that all of my Rabbi Small novels were lost in the flood or at some point during one of my various moves. So, I’ve spent a lot of time the last couple of days, trying to find them on the internet. I bought the first four on Nook, as well as the next four on a website. So Dave, since I’m still in a reading drought, just how am I going to read all of these?! I keep looking at the calendar and realize that winter’s not that far away, so that’s my excuse, though not a very good one! 🙂

          I’ve still got to get back to playing piano, getting my home put together better and on and on. At least we’ve decided not to do so any time soon, at least until April, yay!

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          • Nice that you’re replenishing your Rabbi Small novels, Kat Lit!

            Well, winter IS a good time for books. Hope your reading drought ends then.

            And good luck with the piano-playing and putting your home together better!

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  8. My favorite sidekick is Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe mystery series by Rex Stout. He’s the gumshoe extraordinaire, serving some of the functions of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes, such as being the narrator but does so much more. This is mostly because Wolfe won’t leave his NYC Brownstone with a few notable exceptions, such as it having to do with orchids or gourmet food. Archie is the one who does all the legwork involved, though it is Wolfe who is the one who solves the crime. Archie is also the one who is bookkeeper, records all interviews in shorthand, prods Wolfe to work on the cases, etc. Wolfe is only interested in reading books, tending his orchid collection and discuss menus with his chef, Fritz Brenner. Wolfe is way overweight, but that doesn’t seem to bother him at all.
    I’m sure I’ll come up with more later!

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      Archie Goodwin sounds like a memorable — and VERY necessary — sidekick. Great/thorough description of all he does! I need to try the Nero Wolfe series; I see from a quick Google search the first novel is “Fer-de-Lance.”

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      • Yes, that’s probably true. I posted my other comment in the wrong place, sorry about that! I think I may have to pull out my DVDs of the TV series, not very long, but I think they captured the essence quite well — Timothy Hutton as Archie and Maury Chaykin as Wolfe.

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          • Well, I think most of mystery writers have a sidekick per se. Otherwise, how would they get the inside info needed in order to bring the criminal to jail. I think Inspector Parker played this role in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries or at least until he found his partner, Harriet Vane, amidst a murder trial. That also brings to mind Hercule Poirot’s sidekicks, such as Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon. They were never the brains behind the solving a crime, but were invaluable in order to solve the case. I think it was Inspector Japp who did the most as far as solving a crime. So, I could go and on, but I’ll spare you and you and your readers! 🙂

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            • That’s a great point, Kat Lit! So many mysteries feature “formal” sidekicks, or assistants, or inside sources, etc. It’s also interesting that numerous mysteries feature private investigators outwitting police investigators. Maybe police investigators need better sidekicks… 🙂

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  9. As far as whether protagonists can have more than one sidekick, Stephanie Plum has multiple sidekicks in her adventures, most of whom explicitly or implicitly think of her as *their* sidekick. Most obviously, her friend/colleague Lulu often debates with her over who is the sidekick in their adventures, with the dynamic frequently switching depending on the situation. Her grandmother also often acts as a sidekick. And then the men in her life often treat her as a sidekick, especially Ranger, but in her story, which is what we’re getting here, they’re the sidekicks and she’s the main protagonist.

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    • Oh, and I have *got* to read the Jack Reacher books, obviously. They’re next on my TBR list, just as soon as the semester is over and I finish the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. Speaking of which, that’s another series with a main character who’s kind of a sidekick himself, as the illegitimate member of the royal family who carries out the family’s dirty work, and who has multiple sidekicks himself.

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      • Thank you, Elena!

        A multiple and interesting sidekick dynamic in Janet Evanovich’s series! I’ve only read (and greatly enjoyed) the first book so far; my local library doesn’t have the second one, but does have the third, fourth, fifth, etc. So I plan to buy the second in order to read the series chronologically. 🙂

        While Sgt. Frances Neagley is probably the most frequent of Jack Reacher’s occasional sidekicks, he definitely has others in the 20-plus books — and, once in a while, a team of sidekicks.

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      • I’m not quite sure why this made me think of “American Gods”, but it did. It sounds the tiniest bit similar to Shadow who is the main character, but he somehow gets roped into doing some of the dirty work for some gods. I guess you probably couldn’t have a god as a sidekick…

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            • “So many books, so little time” — I totally hear you, Elena.

              “American Gods” is a bit uneven — loved much of it, sort of bored by some of it — but definitely worth reading. It has a VERY original premise.

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          • Actually, there probably were sidekick gods in that novel, though none of them to the relatively normal Shadow. Elena – I can also relate to the too many books problem! But I was really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed “American Gods” and the follow up “Anansi Boys”. Something about Gaiman’s writing really entertains me. Of course, we all have different tastes, but I’d love to know what you think when you finally get to it 🙂

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            • Soon, soon…first I must finish the last Fitz and the Fool book, read Matt Young’s war memoir “Eat the Apple,” finally get around to “The Bear and the Nightingale,” and then I need to read Gaiman AND some Jack Reacher books…

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              • So… Tuesday? I’m kidding of course. I know that for every book we take off our TBR, we add two. It occasionally saddens me to think how many years it will take to get to some books that i really want to read, and how many books I’d love to re-read, but can’t justify the time.

                Every Christmas I allow myself a completely random read, even if it’s not on my list, or it’s way down there, or a favourite re-read. Have done it the last three years. I’m starting to think about what I might like this year, but there are so many options! And I’m feeling bad for all the books that I won’t pick…

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                • I love that Christmas tradition you have, Sue!

                  And, yes, the ever-expanding to-read list. I’m still waiting for the U.S. Congress to expand the day to 240 hours so I can increase my reading tenfold. Those politicians are probably beholden to the keep-the-day-24-hours lobby…

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    • Yes, that was one of the charms of certain mysteries, that there were civilians and others who are always outsmarting the police and yet there are many officials who fill that void, whether male or female. I do feel good about the women who are on the police force, PIs, CSIs, lawyers or even divers. .

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      • The police can definitely be too conventional when trying to solve some cases, though, as you say, there are excellent police people, too. And I agree — the more women in law-enforcement, the better. As well as people of color.

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        • Yes, Dave, absolutely! I think there are a lot of mysteries that fall between the cracks, not so much women, but people of color as well! There was the series written by Robert B. Parker, where there was a sidekick of Spenser’s, who was named Hawk; there was the girlfriend of Spenser and who was inordinately perfect and beautiful, as well as smart and other of the characters. I got very tired of her! But there is Walter Mosley who had a whole series of crime fiction.

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          • Very true, Kat Lit!

            I’ve never read Robert B. Parker, but I did read the first two of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins crime novels (“Devil in a Blue Dress” and “A Red Death”). Both excellent!

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  10. Although Samwell Tarly in George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ books is not really a sidekick as such to Jon Snow–there’s not really much of a side to kick as they’re both rookies in the Night’s Watch on The Wall keeping the Wildlings (and White Walkers) at bay, he’s short and fat like Samwise Gamgee. They don’t go on a journey like Frodo and Sam but they have independent adventures/mishaps more often than not and Jon is Sam’s protector from the other night-bullies. However, throughout the series, Sam does develop a persistence and bravery in standing up to all kinds of threats, both human and non-human. Also, he’s a bookish type and uses his brain to figure out all kinds of truths that most of the others are too preoccupied or non-analytical to perceive.

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    • Thank you, Brian! Well described. Even though I’ve only read the first of the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels, I can definitely see Samwell’s sidekick potential. Very glad you mentioned him. He’s quite an interesting character — suffering from a father who tried to make him what he wasn’t, being painfully honest about his own limitations, and (as you alluded to) having some real strengths.

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    • Some fictional siblings, such as Elizabeth and Jane, definitely have sidekick elements! Adam and Seth Bede of George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” also come to mind — as do Tom and Al Joad of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

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  11. I agree sidekicks or sub- protagonists play important role both in plot as well as enhancing the traits of protagonist. What they is lack is what main characters seem to possess. Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes is one. Also in Gone With The Wind, we have Scarlet O’Hara and Melanie, in many Shakespeare Plays you have side characters having parallel plots I can think of Merchant of Venice, Antony and Cleopatra. Mostly as accomplices and court jesters.

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    • Thank you, Tanya! Great point about sidekicks not only being important to a plot but helping to give us added insight into what the protagonist is like.

      Those “Gone With the Wind” characters certainly fit this sidekick theme, and I’ll definitely take your word about characters in Shakespeare — who, unfortunately, I’ve only read a little of (three or four plays, and those were in high school and college).

      Also, your reference to court jesters reminds me that more than a few fictional sidekicks are there at least partly for comedic reasons.

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