Image Credits: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
Best friends, often otherwise known as sidekicks, have an invaluable role to play in fiction. They shore up, sometimes literally, the lead character who is struggling with their task. The most famous example of this is Sam Gamgee from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings who did carry both Frodo Baggins and the Ring of Power for a while as the story progressed.
Best friends are there for moral support too and to be a sounding ground for the lead character. Well, we all need someone to sound off with at times, right? And characters in stories reflect us and our behaviour and attitudes (for good and ill), so this aspect is important.
Stories and Their Sidekicks
Some stories simply wouldn’t work without best friends. It is also reasonable to expect one character alone will not succeed in completing a great task on their own. Everyone needs friends and that includes fictional characters.
In classic detective crime you have the lead character and their sidekick – Poirot and Hastings, Holmes and Watson, Morse and Lewis – and in comic fiction the support character is vital. Can you imagine Bertie Wooster without Jeeves?
A truly great best friend in fiction will not want to outshine the lead but will want to bring out the best in them. Again kudos here to Sam Gamgee who, for me, is the definition of the best fictional friend of all time.
As well as being a fan of the book, I loved the Peter Jackson film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the soundtrack is amazing too. On one of the albums (naturally this was a trilogy) there is a poignant line sung by Gollum about not having a best friend for him, implying immediately Frodo did have that. And yes Frodo did. It made all the difference to the success or otherwise of his quest.
Best friends don’t necessarily have to be human either. In the classic fairytale, Puss in Boots is clearly a friend to his human “master” though it was always clear to me who was the brains in that particular outfit. It was the cat but the human was sensible enough to be guided by said cat so that was okay.
And yes best friends in fiction do face those inevitable times when the one they’re trying to help simply won’t listen to them and has to learn their lesson the hard way. Best friends face rejection regularly too before the lead character comes to their senses and realises their chum was right after all.
The Best Friend/Sidekick as Narrator
With my flash fiction, where I haven’t got the word count room for a lot of characters, I will sometimes use as a narrator a character showing you something important about someone else. Here, it is the best friend talking. Conan-Doyle does this with his Sherlock Holmes stories. P.G. Wodehouse does it too.
The danger for a writer I think is ensuring their lead character deserves to be the lead character and they are not outshone by the sidekick (unless you are writing humour. See the works of P.G. Wodehouse here, especially the Jeeves and Wooster books. Jeeves is clearly more intelligent than Bertie Wooster. He, on the other hand, is smart enough to recognise that and not resent it so Bertie is not as dim as some might think).
The characters have to suit their roles then. The best friend character has to not mind being second fiddle (take a bow again, Sam Gamgee). The best friend will almost certainly be on the receiving end of the lead character’s angst and stress at some point. It goes with the territory I think!
Characteristics of a Best Friend Character
But the best friend character should not be afraid to challenge the lead when they’re getting it wrong (again this is almost inevitable at some point in the story). It is the best friend character who will bring the lead back to their senses (and sometimes that can be as a result of the split between the two with reconciliation happening later).
Characteristics of a best friend character include the following:-
- Sees the best in the lead character and encourages them to show those traits.
- Recognises why the lead is the lead.
- Recognises their own role is a support one and they carry it out well.
- Does the things the lead cannot – often narrating the story. Holmes, for example, is a genius but would have no idea how to tell a story. It is why Watson narrates the tales, Watson as a character has a far better idea of what will appeal to the reading masses, and why Holmes employs the Baker Street Irregulars to find out the things he knows he couldn’t access. There are just some areas Holmes’ genius gets in the way.
Perhaps the reason the best friend is the best friend is because they do bring out the best in the lead. That in turn can turn the lead into the hero they’re meant to be. The latter’s success is the best friend’s success (and they do deserve to bask in the glow when they carry out their role well).
Contrasts and Skill Sets
Contrasts between the lead and the best friend characters can be interesting too. Watson tempers Holmes’ logic (and tries to save him from his drug addiction, which is still a controversial fault to give to any character now).
Hastings with his own thoughts and comments can and does help Poirot, sometimes by showing the detective what the murderer would want Poirot to think, what most people would think, so Poirot knows not to go that route! Hastings being the younger man can also do more of the running around and also he drives, Poirot does not.
Differing skill sets matter here too. The lead and the best friend should complement each other here though by far the most important role of the sidekick is being an invaluable support. Would Holmes have gone on to solve so many cases without the support of Watson or would his drug addiction have beaten him without his ally trying to rein him in here?
Harry Potter needed the support of his friends. For the final showdown it may well have been between him and Voldemort but the whole of the latter’s organisation had to be taken down too (and that occurred thanks to Harry’s backup – his friends, Dumbledore etc).
So look out for the sidekick character. You can usually tell early on who it is likely to be. The author will bring them in relatively early. You’ll get more snippets of information about them rather than any other character besides the lead. (We know details about Watson’s life for example, less so for Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper, so in the order of things Watson is clearly the more important character).
The lead character will refer to the sidekick when the latter is not in scenes with them and so on. And another role for the sidekick, especially in detective fiction, is the scenes in between the main “action” will often follow them, reveal details about them we’ll need to know for later on in the story, and often the sidekick will reveal information about the lead character nobody else would know, only the best friend. That information will help shape how readers react to the main character.
And it will be the best friend the lead character will come to the aid of time and again. It will be the best friend character that villains will try to get at to attack the lead character by default. So it is an important role then – playing “second fiddle” in fiction is not something to be despised.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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