Sidekicks and Henchmen

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!

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    Sophie,
    Thanks for sharing your insights into an often overlooked type of character. Since sidekicks are close to the hero it is important for the writer to sharply define not only their relationship with the hero, but some traits that are different. A good example is Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. They share a common goal, yet are not alike at all. Thanks again, Sophie.

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  2. says

    Good and provocative; made me think. I think my two favorite henchpeople are both from TV series, where they could develop as a little bit more than armor plating. First off, Ceela Yar, the cloned daughter of Enterprise-D security officer Tasha Yar and a Romulan captor. The fact that we have known Tasha for a whole season as a bridge officer makes us root for her to come over and see the light. There’s a Cardassian woman on the first season of Voyager who fills the same role.

    For the men, it’s still Star Trek for me – Leaving aside the enigmatic Garak, the real henchman-redeemed-in-death is Damarr, who defects to the Federation and dies fighting the Dominion. Even Commander Kira honors him at his death.

    In summary, for anyone to care about these characters, they either have to be over-extreme, or like Ceela, Damarr, and Ms. SHerman’s nominee Samwise Gamgee, have time to develop their own arc.

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  3. says

    It’d be interesting to see someone take these character types and mix them up a little. Push the boundaries of what is considered a henchman or sidekick.

    Maybe write a story about a henchman? Or a story about an evil sidekick? Oh, the possibilities!

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  4. says

    I think that often the character (especially the villain) is actually defined by the henchmen he has. A well-developed villain is often savvy enough to appear decent, and he has really good reasons for doing what he’s doing, something we can relate with, but the henchmen are his shadows, showing the true dark nature of the villain. Leviathan Wakes, for example, has a very convincing villain with his henchpersons (the scientists, I think there were both genders but I might be remembering it wrong) doing the really horrible things, ditto Scar/the hyenas in Lion King. Perhaps the sidekicks of the hero express the more lighthearted side of the hero which he isn’t able to express because of his super-serious role (think Mercutio as Romeo’s best friend).

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  5. says

    I think you’re spot on. An example that comes to mind is in Transporter 2. You’ve got your lead, and the funny sidekick. Then you have the villain and he of course has henchmen. But he also has a female sidekick. And she is, as you said, fast and ferocious rather than bulky and brawn.

    Personally, I think sidekicks can make or break a story. Think of Sebastian from the Little Mermaid or Dory in Finding Nemo. Terrific secondary characters who actually pull their weight and provide a good sounding board for the main characters.

    Great topic, Sophie.

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  6. says

    I think the lack of connection with henchmen comes from the fact that they are seen with much less frequency than the main (presumably good) cast and rarely developed as a result. They often rarely have their own agency, at least from the reader’s perspective; they follow the main villain and often their motives and backstory are only shown through a few scenes at best. Sidekicks, on the other hand, are on the stage more to interact with the hero, so it’s easy to learn about and love them. Also, sidekicks are often portrayed as genuine friends of the hero, whereas henchmen are rarely shown as anything more than followers, even if they call themselves “friends”. There’s no nice relationship there to make the reader care, and if there is, it’s often to make the villain seem sympathetic when (s)he mourns the henchman’s inevitable death.

    It’s also pretty rare to read a story from the henchmen’s POV. In earlier posts we’ve discussed how good villains think they’re the heroes of their stories, so it follows that their henchmen would be more like sidekicks in these cases. I can’t think of any story off the top of my head told by a henchman who is consciously and unapologetically evil.

    However, there are a few cases I can think of where henchmen are pretty developed and earn a lot of love or admiration from the audience. Many people love the Malfoys from the Harry Potter books, but this is because 1) Rowling made an effort to give all her characters depth and complexity, 2) the way they are used and manipulated by Voldemort casts them in the role of victims, so we feel sympathy for them, and 3) they do perform some redeeming actions, e.g. Narcissa’s protection of Harry in the final battle. It’s also worth noting that two of these characters serve more as minor villains than straight henchmen, though, and we see them much more frequently than we do You-Know-Who. And a lot of people at least enjoy Bellatrix as well, because she’s a larger-than-life psychopath, so reading about her is fun.

    I think it’s also easier to get more well-rounded henchmen in multi-POV stories, because they get the chance to be the protagonists, or at least stronger secondary characters, more frequently. For example, in comics, you can learn much more about Mystique because plot arcs actually follow her and Magneto around, rather than staying solely with Professor X and his crew.

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