Last month I wrote about the major, extreme types of fictional characters, the heroes and villains. Today I want to briefly make some observations about the minor kinds of characters known as ‘sidekicks’ (often used to denote good characters, but sometimes neutrally) and ‘henchmen'(used only to denote minor bad characters).
Firstly though it’s important to note that a so-called ‘sidekick’ type may in fact be a major character who is too modest to think of themselves as a hero(this happens principally with the Type Cool Heroes I described in last month’s post). In this case though the character, especially if he or she is telling the story in the first person, isn’t a sidekick at all in terms of the story, just of minor importance apparently to the other characters in the story, as their heroic status isn’t apparent yet. I’ve used this trope myself in several of my books, and its a lot of fun. But this isn’t the kind of ‘sidekick’ I’m profiling here today.
So here’s a few things I’ve observed from both my writing and my reading:
*Sidekicks are often interesting in their own right; henchmen rarely so. Sidekicks think for themselves, whilst obeying in general terms the hero or villain. So often they can be funny, brave or alternatively comically not brave; they can be touching, pitiable, engaging. But henchmen are usually no more than walking armour plate, who don’t think for themselves. They are often described in physical terms only. They can be pitiable—but only after they’ve been knocked out! Sidekicks can also be turned around: one working for a hero may go over to the dark side, for instance; one working for a villain may be redeemed if they do the right thing(especially if they die doing it!)
*It follows from this that sidekicks will be more prominent in a story than henchmen are. Sidekicks(mostly good, sometimes bad, sometimes ambiguous)can be a way of approaching the characterisation of a hero or a villain in an unusual and lateral way. They may even at a pinch function as narrators in a novel, even when they never emerge as heroes themselves. Sometimes, when a hero is a bit too good, or a villain a bit too bad, the sidekicks will inject some much-needed humanity into the whole thing. They lighten the load of the plot. And readers will often bond with them. But hardly anyone bonds with henchmen, and so there are very, very few works of fiction from their point of view: though one famous exception is Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet which focusses on King Claudius’ henchmen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These guys are truly henchmen, definitely not sidekick material like Polonius(on the bad side) or Horatio(on the good side.) Yet somehow Stoppard manages to make them truly touching, so that you actually feel sorry for them. But that is the exception that kind of proves the rule!
*Sidekicks can emerge early in the story, or be gathered during it. Henchmen are usually just there, like furniture, from the start.
*Sidekicks can be of either sex; henchmen are usually just that, men. Though there are exceptions, these usually are not true ‘henchmen’ but more ‘minor sidekicks’ as it were—it might seem sexist, but the fact seems to be that because henchmen are just there for their muscle, their brawn, that is regarded as a male characteristic. When female ‘henchmen’ (‘henchpersons??’)appear, they are usually there because of ferocity, speed or other such attributes rather than the sheer brute strength that a henchman of the male persuasion is used for.
*Sidekicks may survive to tell the tale or may sacrifice themselves for the sake of their leader, whether good or bad. Henchmen generally are there to kill or be killed, and usually end up on the wrong side of the equation, and their deaths rarely merit more than a line. My son Xavier and his mates once made a short film called ‘Waiting for Bond’, about the last thoughts of the henchman of a James Bond villain just before he(the henchman) is killed in the opening scenes of a James Bond movie. Clever idea!