“Shouldn’t Alexander ask the questions?”
It was a legitimate question. After all, Alexander is THE duck detective in my chapter book; Molly is JUST the sidekick. Right?
At the same time, my critique group said that they wanted to know more about her. Fair enough. It was clear that I needed to solidify Molly’s traits and clarify her relationship with Alexander. Is she simply a friend lending a hand, or is she actually an employee of said duck detective? How did they first meet? What traits does she bring to the case—and into her relationship with Alexander? Does she have any character flaws that get in the way at times? And perhaps most importantly, what is her overall purpose in the story?
Who is your sidekick? I knew that Molly was going to help Alexander solve this case, as well as many others, but I hadn’t really given any thought as to whether or not she was formally employed. It’s obvious that they would have simply run into one another on the farm, but how would she have come to work for Alexander? If I want to create a rich character with depth, I’ve got to develop her backstory.
I began to think about some of the sidekicks whom I’ve grown to love, such as Samwise Gamgee, Hermione Granger, and Ronald Weasley. Sam has grown up in Hobbiton alongside Frodo, so when we first meet them in The Fellowship of the Ring, they are already friends with a shared history of a sheltered, happy life in this rural hobbit village. At a glance, Sam seems like pretty simple guy: a gardener who is so shy that he can’t work up the courage to ask his crush for a dance.
Hermione and Ron, on the other hand, do not meet Harry until they set out on their journey to Hogwarts. While Harry and Hermione shared the experience of a muggle home, Harry had never experienced the family relationships that Ron and Hermione had. We also learn that Hermione is a know-it-all who prefers to follow the rules, while Ron is the minimalist who can’t escape the shadows of his older brothers.
What positive traits does s/he bring to the story and to the relationship with the protagonist? Some of Molly’s traits are obvious to me as I consider the current draft of my story. Of course she is loyal and helpful, just like every other sidekick, but what really sets her apart from Alexander, and how do these traits impact their relationship?
While Sam’s shyness initially overshadows some of his strengths, we soon learn that his fierce loyalty to Frodo brings out a courageous spirit that will be necessary as his friend becomes weaker and weaker under the weight of the ring. He encourages Frodo throughout the journey and perseveres when the journey seems hopeless. As we progress through the story, we see how Sam’s courage leads to surprising strength of body and will, both of which are vital to the success of Frodo’s quest.
Hermione and Ron are equally loyal to Harry. Hermione is passionate about learning and gifted in the art of memorizing, which together prove invaluable as she and her friends perpetually find themselves “in over their heads” with the darkest of villains. Ron is good humored, a trait that is desperately needed as the three navigate the challenges of youth and the evils perpetuated by Harry’s nemesis. Perhaps most admirable is his ability to problem solve and help his friends, a trait which is often overlooked because of Harry’s fame and Hermione’s intellect.
Does he or she have any weaknesses? As I contemplated my writing group’s feedback, I realized that I had focused on the quirks of my protagonist, Alexander and hadn’t really considered Molly’s potential flaws. And while it is tempting to think flaws aren’t necessary in a chapter book sidekick, I also realize that I want my young readers see how each of the characters struggle and grow through their experiences and relationships.
When we first meet Sam, he is a timid, bumbling hobbit. One would hardly suspect how instrumental he would become to the quest to destroy the ring. And yet the ordinariness of this character contributes to his lightheartedness, which ultimately helps him to cope with the daunting task and withstand the power of the ring.
Early in the Harry Potter series, Hermione runs the risk of alienating herself from her friends because she is such a bossy, know-it-all. Ron, on the other hand, demonstrates emotional immaturity and insensitivity that leads to misunderstandings and disagreements with his closest friends. These conflicts further complicate their efforts to help Harry combat Lord Voldemort and his followers. Fortunately, their bond of friendship is strong enough to help them work through and with these weaknesses, particularly in moments of crisis.
What is his or her overall purpose in the story? I know that Molly is going to assist Alexander with this big case, but I also realize that she ought to have a deeper purpose for being part of the story. Many writers would agree that a character who can be deleted without impacting the story is a character that doesn’t need to be part of the story. Molly’s character needs to have real significance.
As we travel through Middle Earth with Sam and Frodo, we see how the journey would not have been possible if Sam had said “no” to Gandalf or bailed out on his friend in a moment of very justified despair. Instead, his ordinariness brings an appreciation of small things that bring a light into the darkness of Mordor, and his selfless commitment to his friend and the task they’ve been assigned show us how such an ordinary character can accomplish the extraordinary.
As Harry’s journey becomes more difficult and heart-wrenching, we see him attempting to isolate himself to prevent more harm from befalling those he loves. But Ron and Hermione refuse to let him fight this battle alone. As the fight against Voldemort takes its toll on Harry, he begins to realize how very much he needs his friends if they are to have any hope of winning. Hermione’s weakness often becomes her strength, as she draws upon her book smarts and keen insights to negotiate each challenge they face. Ron is in many ways like Sam: more of the ordinary hero who rises to the occasion when his friends are in need and their world is threatened. Together, they demonstrate the power of friendship.
Where to go from here… I realize that my chapter book will not incorporate the level of detail that we find in Tolkien’s and Rowling’s work, but I do think that it is every bit as important to map my characters, including my protagonist’s sidekick. Just knowing more about her background, traits, and role in the story will help me to create more a lifelike, relatable, and meaningful assistant detective.
What helps you to develop your sidekick?