04 August 2012

Just for (Side) Kicks

by John M. Floyd

I watched--actually, rewatched--a movie the other night that made me think of a plot device that fiction writers often use: giving the hero a sidekick.  The movie is Rustler's Rhapsody, and its sole purpose is to poke fun at the traditional Western.  If you've seen it you'll know what I mean, about sidekicks, and if you haven't seen it I suggest you put it in your Netflix queue.  I'm not overly fond of the term LOL, but this movie will make you do it.  It'll even make you ROFL.

By the way, I said "giving the hero a sidekick."  The villain's sidekicks are usually called "henchmen," and the Oddjobs and Rosa Klebbs of the world deserve their own column (in fact, I gave them one, in the old Criminal Brief days).  A sidekick and a henchman do, however, sometimes serve the same purpose: each gives the author/director someone the boss can confide in, thus revealing needed information to the reader/viewer.  One of the differences is that if he's a henchman he usually dies, and usually does it earlier in the story than the boss does, in order to save the biggest confrontation until the end.

Note 1: I find it interesting that most fictional heroes and villains do have some kind of sidekick, whether it happens to be a friend, colleague, relative, employee, or spouse.  I can think of only a few bad guys who didn't; among them are Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, and it might be argued that those two didn't need a lot of help in the villain department.

May the dark side of the Force be with you

The kind of hero-helpers I'd like to consider here, though, aren't along the lines of Dr. Watson, Friday, Tonto, Huck Finn, Kato, and Samwise Gamgee--or even Nora Charles.  The ones I'm talking about are the ones you wouldn't expect the hero to have.  The kind that come from the dark side, and in fact often reflect the protagonist's dark side.

I'm reminded of three of these lethal "weapons": Robert B. Parker's Hawk, Harlan Coben's Windsor Horne Lockwood III, and Robert Crais's Joe Pike.

Guardian angel

Hawk, Spenser's best friend and sparring partner, was introduced early in the series and served several purposes, including the aforementioned role as sounding-board to the hero.  He also saved Spenser's bacon on a regular basis and added a level of pure menace to Parker's already suspenseful plots.  But Hawk's biggest contribution to the series--and its success--was that he could do things that the hero's moral code would not allow the hero to do.

Here's what I mean.  I'm paraphrasing, but in one of the novels Spenser and Hawk had just had a shootout with the opposition, and one of the bad guys was lying there suffering but still alive.  Both of them knew they'd have to kill him or he'd come after them.  Spenser said something like "I can't kill somebody who's lying on the floor."  Hawk said, "Hell, I can," and shot him.

Note 2: Supposedly, Hawk's and Spenser's paths first crossed when a Boston crime lord hired Hawk to kill Spenser--but I suspect they really met at one of those conferences for People With No First Names. 

Me Myron, you Win

Another example is Windsor Horne Lockwood, the longtime friend of sports agent Myron Bolitar, in the series novels of Harlan Coben.  Like Hawk, Win is fiercely loyal and fiercely fierce; he thinks nothing of breaking the law, or of breaking the necks of anybody who stands in his way.  Myron (despite his name) is no wimp himself--he is, after all, the hero of the series--but Win is a killing machine with absolutely no conscience or scruples.  He can do things without blinking an eye that Myron would never be willing to do, even if he physically could--and thus Win allows us readers to meet our violence quota while we continue to like and admire the main character.

Win (again, like Hawk) is a complex and mysterious guy, and a flashy dresser as well.  He is, however, flashy in a different way: he's an aging-preppie corporate executive, a buttoned-down and pinstriped product of Old Money.  As such, Win is even more dangerous, because he doesn't look like a killer.

Not your average Joe

A third example that comes to mind is Joe Pike, from Robert Crais's novels featuring L.A. private eye Elvis Cole.  I think of Pike as occupying the middle ground between the other two sidekicks I've mentioned--he's neither as physically intimidating as Hawk or as unfeeling as Win.  But he's just as deadly.  And, once again, he steps in--usually unrequested, of course--anytime the situation demands the kind of ruthless and often illegal solutions that would violate Cole's sense of right and wrong.  Elvis Cole remains the hero with the strict code of honor; Joe Pike is the loose cannon who'll do anything to help his friend.  We wind up rooting for them both, but we have more respect for Cole.

Note 3: I've used the present tense in discussing Win and Pike since Coben's and Crais's series are ongoing, and I've used the past tense in discussing Hawk since Bob Parker passed away in 2010.  The good news is that my fellow Mississippian Ace Atkins has been chosen by the Parker estate to continue writing the Spenser novels, and I'm pleased to report that the first one (Lullaby) was excellent.  My only regret is that Ace didn't instruct Spenser to throw Susan Silverman over a cliff--but that's a subject for another day.

Seconds in command

Other "dark-side" assistants to protagonists are Bubba Rogowski (author Dennis Lehane), Clete Purcell (James Lee Burke), and Mouse Alexander (Walter Mosley).  I know I've left out plenty of them, but those top my personal list, or at least fit easily into slots alongside the ones I mentioned earlier.  If any of  you know of others, I'd be happy to add those to the roster.

Bottom line is, as long as there are heroes there will be sidekicks.  Their duties will always be (1) to help their bosses get out of trouble and (2) to help them look good to readers.

As writers, we know the second task is as important as the first.


  1. earl Emerson coined the term Sociopathic Sidekics for these guys. in his Thomas Black novels there is Snake, who is almost a parody of the typw:no morals but not much use, and no first name.

  2. Thanks, Rob. I didn't know about the Thomas Black books. And yes, "sociopathic sidekicks" sounds like a good label for the Snakes and Hawks of the world.

  3. John, interesting column as yours always are. Cozies are a far cry from the folks you mention, but in her own way, my Callie Parrish's BFF Jane Baker is as much a sociopathic sidekick as permitted in cozies. The most common complaint from readers of the first book was that Jane wasn't "nice enough" to be Callie's friend. I don't understand that though. As a visually handicapped person, she should have been a sympathetic character. I guess they objected to her occupation as a 900 "fantasy" telephone worker and to her habit of shoplifting.

  4. Fran, I have always believed the bad guys should have some good qualities and the good guys should have some evil in them. If Jane didn't have bad habits she probably wouldn't be interesting, or seem as real to readers as she does.

    Look at all the history and baggage that Stephanie Plum's friend Lula carries around with her. Once again, Lula provides a way for the author to get things done that cute and pretty little Stephanie could never justify doing.

  5. Actually, I love the Lula character. Did you see the movie ONE FOR THE MONEY? The ONLY character who matched the ones in my mind is Lula.

  6. Fran, I agree with you, on the movie. Lula was well cast, but I was disappointed with everyone else. Stephanie, Morelli, Ranger, and Vinnie were all completely wrong, I thought. And Debbie Reynolds as Grandma Masur?? As Stephanie would say, Jeez Louise.

    Stephanie Plum will always be Sandra Bullock, in my mind.

  7. Hawk was always my favorite character in the Spenser novels; Susan my least favorite. I'd have liked Susan better if Parker hadn't made her constantly gasping in disbelief at the male bonding between Spenser and Hawk, thus giving Parker an excuse to maunder on about how male friendship works. I was always tempted to write him and say, "Guess what? Women are the same way. We'll bury bodies for each other, no questions asked, the whole nine yards. Get OVER it, and back to the plot!"

  8. This is really cool! I've been reading a lot about character "structure" lately and I haven't run across the "protagonist's shadow" sidekick yet. What a really stimulating notion! Now I'm wracking my brain to think of non-mystery (or non-crime) examples. I know they've got to be there...

  9. You're right, there are plenty of non-mystery sidekicks out there. Barney Fife comes to mind--not to mention Barney Rubble. And good luck with the brainwracking!--that usually turns out to be a worthwhile activity.

    Eve, I've heard that people either love Susan Silverman or hate her. And I read someplace that many fans consider her to be the price they have to pay to experience Spenser's adventures.

  10. I had a couple of sociopathic sidekicks, although I called them girlfriends.

    James Patterson's Alex Cross' best friend, Sampson, makes a great sidekick, not by any means a killer, but an intimidating force.

    I was a bit young for the Steve Roper series, but I gathered WW-II Polish commando, Mike Nomad, would do things Roper never would.

    Perhaps the ultimate sidekick was 'Mini-Me'.

    Fran, I loved Callie's friend Jane and I think her phone-sex job is one of the smartest sidekick careers ever. It just bugged me she shoplifted. Yikes, blind and she'd still glommed stuff from Victoria's Secret! I didn't see the movie you mention, but I also enjoy the Lulu character.

  11. Leigh, I knew I could depend on you to come up with Mini-Me.

  12. Joe Pike has of course been in a couple of his own stand-alones: I think it gives Crais the chance to do stories without all that moral compass crap that comes with Cole. ;)


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