Stealing the Spotlight: When Sidekicks Take Over
Chris A. Jackson, James R. Tuck, Michael G. Williams, Thomas Monaghan
Moderator: Edward McKeown
Thoughts about sidekicks:
- TM: Side characters that become pivotal, going from a name drop to a character that orchestrates the story’s end; it’s surprising how the small characters can change the story
- EM: The person who changes the most is often the secondary character (e.g. Spock from Star Trek, Watson)
- CJ: You can have more than one protagonist!
- MW: The moment the secondary character starts to take over: When they start behaving like the main characters of their own stories.
- TM: We’re more risky with our secondary and tertiary characters and we get to explore more of their dark side, and that makes them lively and brings them to the forefront.
- CJ: Also, if they’re secondary characters, they can more easily be killed, which adds tension.
- TM: The characters can take you for a ride. Backstory can be added for colour, then revisited as a critical issue later in the story.
- JT: It’s easy to overdo secondary characters.
- CJ: But you can add depth to the character without overwhelming.
- JT: Then it’s not backstory, it’s what’s happened in the past that has made that character become the person they are.
- CJ: It can be hard when the side story enrichens the story, but at the cost of way too much wordcount.
- EM: Secondary characters can go on to other adventures that are fairly incredible.
- MW: Secondary characters can be waiting to be used, in their own stories.
- TM: One incredible example is Vir from Babylon 5, going from a buffoon to the emperor of the Centauri republic.
- EM: Delenn also moved the entire series.
- JT: By the end of Buffy, everyone else is more important than her. She doesn’t change much.
- EM: Spike’s change on Buffy.
- CJ: Sec characters enrich the story. Take that. Ride that pony all the way to the barn. Just be aware of word count.
- MW: If a character entertains him, then he’ll go with it because he’s enjoying it.
- Audience comment: Monroe on Grimm, Regina from Once Upon a Time.
Audience Question: Spike’s arc was supposed to be static in the second season. What do you do when a character gets such overwhelming support that you keep him on?
- EM: That’s called Conan Doyle syndrome.
- TM: The characters tell him when he’s done.
- CJ: If his fanbase will pay him for more of that sec character, then he’ll write it, if that story is worthy of telling.
- TM: That’s the secret: the story has to be worth telling.
- CJ: Has a respect for his fans: he wouldn’t tell it if they didn’t think it was worth telling.
- MW: When a few say they want more, he doesn’t put much stock in it, but when lots say they do, then he puts way more.
Other examples and discussion:
- CJ: Characters who keep getting their asses kicked and still win.
- TM: That’s what tertiary and secondary characters are for.
- JT: Works for Dresden because the effects carry over into the next book. Bad writing is when the hero/protagonist is completely unaffected in the next book.
- Audience comment: Hannibal Lecter – was originally a side character in Manhunter.
- MW: People willing to completely say their motivations out loud.
- JT: I normally have filters, but they go way down. (And boy do they come off at the con.)
- TM: A villain doing what is necessary, what he sees as necessary for his people, but is he genuinely evil, or just going to extreme measures to have a positive outcome?
- EM: Are the rebels always the good guys?
- JT: Lex Luthor sees Superman if anything goes wrong, if Superman decided to take over the world he could. Black Panther and Dr. Doom are the same but one is good and one is evil.
- MW: Sometimes the hero and villain are each other’s heroes and villains.
- JT: All of the Firefly crew is their own protagonist.
- CJ: Fallible protagonist: Any time Mal screws up is when the side characters can step in
- MW: Each character in Firefly stands out and it works.
- MW: When a side character goes off and comes back changed or even damaged, and it affects a later story.
- EM: There’s a synergy – some characters who don’t seem to exist without the hero, the whole is greater than the parts (Kirk/Spock/McCoy, Sherlock/Watson, etc)
- TM: Characters pair up, work together as a team, and it helps develop them further. This helps to advance the story better.
- EM: When the main POV character teamed with extraordinary character, and the extraordinary character is more than main character, and the POV character is more normal.
- TM: Like the Dr. Who companion. Gives him a chance to explain, not just for the companion but for the audience.
- TM: Often the side character comes up with solutions to problems.
Audience Question: Are secondary/tertiary characters the ones making the world, or does the protagonist make the world?
- TM, CJ: Both
- JT: Secondary characters can show parts of the world to broaden the world and bring more perspective without going into too much detail.
- MW: In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, DS9 is a station, so there are a lot of walk-ons, which help make the world.
Audience Question: How do you prevent characters from other races/species from being token?
- EM: To some extent these characters are tokens. They are what they do. You could put in some characteristics that
- TM: Try to provide other characters from that same race, to give alternative views. Helps you paint a broader picture from both sides.
- CJ: Tertiary characters *are* setting. Keep them as real as you can without letting them take the story places you don’t want them to go. No one cares what colour the carpet is unless someone’s bleeding on it. No one cares about backstory unless it affects the story.
- TM: If they’re just that once
- EM: Cultures are easier to stereotype.
- JT: Write well. But also, these characters are not in their culture so they will react differently to what’s going on because it’s not where they’re form.
- MW: Cheesy trick: Have someone treat them like a token and see how they react.
Are sidekicks and main characters sometimes impossible without each other?
- EM: Xena and Gabrielle – better characters together than on their own.
- MW: Quark and Odo from Deep Space Nine. DS9 is the messy show.
- TM: Londo and Jakar in Babylon 5. Jakar’s journey through the show.
- JT: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Black Widow’s movie just as much as Cap’s.
Audience Question: Ever had a beta reader or editor ask you to add or take away from a secondary character?
- CJ: Just kills the character who needs to go, has them die gloriously.
- EM: If they’re not worth the words, then demote the tertiary character who was secondary back to tertiary.
TM: What’s been your most disturbing experience with a character?
- (For him, flinching with a villain that revolted him. Had to kill that villain, go through the experience of killing him off, to be able to deal with him, the brothel breeding system the villain was involved in, and the dark things that happen that the society condones)
- EM: No one should extrapolate from writing to writer. But you have to identify with the bad guy to write the bad guy.
- CJ: Having to put yourself in the bad guy’s head. It’s clear what he’s doing and why he’s doing, but the means to the end that he has envisioned, getting into his head is hard but it needed to happen.
- MW: One villain had power to delete people from existence, and made for an unreliable narrator
- JT: When a side character goes off after the bad guy and gets hurt.