Not Just Along for the Ride

As the plot engine of many novels, a protagonist that is too fun runs the risk of undermining the seriousness of the unfolding events. If everything is a farce, the book is condemned to being no more than a quick read. While an author can let the froth die down gradually until the all-out climax sequence, the hero who was so engaging before may come to feel like the typical do-gooder by the end.

Since fun is a prime ingredient of entertainment, how can an author divorce it from a main character? One way is to assign the hijinks to a sidekick. This device is as old as Don Quixote and as durable. This arrangement serves many dramatic purposes. The hero gets someone to whom to express a wide array of emotions as the novel unfolds. They get a foil by which to reflect how far they are straying from common moral ground. Best of all, the interactions form a basis for a relationship whereby the reader learns to understand and even anticipate how both will react to each other.

Numbered among the advantages specific to a joke-laden relationship is that when a buddy is providing the humor, the hero can participate or not, depending on what the situation calls for. When the two are chatting during the downtime before the next dramatic episode, the hero can loosen up and serve as a humorous counterpart. On the flip side, a smart aleck can crack wise even when bullets are flying, but the hero has to save lives.

The freedom of a sidekick to make jokes whatever the occasion serves another useful story purpose as well. It can keep an ironic edge to the plot’s developments, making them seem more credible. If the hero pulls off a stupendous feat, the commentary afterward by the buddy can provide a context in which the incredible becomes plausible. A few follow-up jokes about the feat, scattered in the next few scenes, can then make the incredible seem normal. They can laugh about it, right?

The benefits on the character-development side are also manifold. Chief among them is the insight the sidekick has into the hero’s background, showing a side that can be lost in the vigorous pursuit of a plot goal. We would never know, for instance, how much the hero hates soggy Cheerios at breakfast time. Oh, finicky, okay, I didn’t know that. Or, how no one can walk through the hero’s bedroom because of all the laundry strewn at will. The sidekick is just having some fun, but we’re doing more than just smiling.

Exercise: If you have surrounded your main character with an assortment of friends or comrades, comb the manuscript for the direct interactions. Could you assign a solid core of them to one person? That is, the one replaces the sundry. Once you have narrowed down your choice, now you can concentrate on developing the buddy as a full-fledged character as well.

“When your buddy tells you a movie is good, that's worth 2,000 commercials.”
—Tucker Max

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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