The Mind On Stage

Fictional worlds, cognition, and emotion

Samwise, Robin, Donkey and Watson: Why We Love Sidekicks

What draws us to the secondary characters in movies and plays?

"The secondary characters are calling the shots

While the guys are being stored in the wings

We’ve been left in charge of it all while the plot

Is unfolding like the Lord of the Rings

Trilogy

In a way

You and me

‘Til the very end

And like Frodo and Sam Wise

You’ll be my best friend

My best friend" - [Title of Show

The sidekick is an interesting character trope. Unlike the brooding hero, the plucky princess, the captain of the ship, the sidekick’s job is rarely to have a life and agency of his or her own. Instead, the sidekick is there to provide comedic relief, to support the hero’s journey, and to occasionally learn a lesson as the audience’s surrogate. Occasionally (like with Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter books), the sidekick is there to fill in gaps in the hero’s abilities. But mostly, the hero could basically function without the sidekick, although it would probably be less fun for the audience.

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Fiction generally is a space where we can have a modicum of control that is missing from our real lives—no matter what happens on screen, on stage, or on the page, we can turn it off, close the book, and the characters will be right where we left them. Even if we feel fear or anger as a result of what’s happening in fiction, it’s not the same as the anger or fear we feel in real life. This is what psychologists call the “quarantining” of pretend. Pretend worlds are related to the real world and for the most part function just like the real world (except for the specific areas we’ve decided are different for that world, such as the availability of time travel) but are separate from the real world.

Fiction is also a way to practice the way we interact with others. In fact, a leading theory about the function of fiction is that it is a way for us to "abstract" and "simulate" social experiences. According to Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley—leading researchers in the psychology of literature and fiction—when we read a book, or watch a movie, we are learning social principles and practicing how we might react in those social situations. 

Importantly, the social situations we may be practicing through fiction are just that—practice, and our lives can continue on in the same vein regardless. There are no consequences to trying things out in fiction. In my own work, I’ve found that when people talk about sad fictional movies they’ve seen, they feel sadness. However, when people talk about sad events that have happened in their own lives, they feel not only sadness, but also anxiety. Fiction allows for sadness without concurrent fear—which may be where the pleasure of a good tear-jerker comes from.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read some pieces that don’t just talk about fiction and its benefits of being quarantined from the real world generally, but specific writings with a focus on side kicks. One was Ron Suskin’s incredible account of his Autistic son’s relationship and relational abilities through the world of Disney. Ron’s son, Owen, developed regressive autism at age 3, going from a typically developing child to nonverbal and nonsocial quickly. Ron was able to begin to reach his son again when he noticed Owen’s predilection for watching Disney movies over and over. Owen began to quote Disney movies, and having conversations from the perspective of a variety of characters from the movies. The telling of his journey is incredible, and one piece that particularly struck me was that most of the characters Owen focused on were sidekicks—separate from the main action in a way, but still integral to the story.

I hypothesize there are several reasons for this gravitation to sidekicks.

The first is that sidekicks are funnier and often more colorful than the main characters. They say the better lines, they get to do the physical humor often, the slapstick. (Although this can be why anyone likes sidekicks). Even villains’ sidekicks have humor (for example the hyenas of Lion King versus Scar, or the wisecracking parrot Iago versus serious Jafar in Aladdin). Main characters are often boring, and certainly less quotable, in comparison.

Second, sidekicks also don't have the social demands from the world that the main characters do—they basically have one function, to support the main character. They don't have the pressures of the hero's journey, or the romantic arc that drives the story. Their lives are a bit more streamlined and simpler, which could be comforting for individuals who feel overwhelmed by the world at times—they want the simpler arc.

And third, there's a sense that it's OK that the world is happening separate from the sidekick, that the main plot doesn't really involve the sidekick. The sidekick never really notices that he or she isn't driving the action, and is mostly OK with his or her lot in life (although there are always exceptions). This could allow individuals with disabilities to identify with them…particularly in many settings such as school, where atypical kids are separated, put aside, not expected to live in the same world as typically developing kids. In the "real world" plot of middle school, for example, much of the action is often happening without these children. Sidekicks could be more identifiable for children who are placed outside of the main action by adults. 

For all of us, fiction allows for a safe space that can be turned on and off at will. The characters in fictional worlds allow us to live out fantasies or practice herorics. But sidekicks may provide an additional function—they allow us to see humor in dangerous situations, to be more observational than action-bound, and to be ok with that. And the reflection they provide may be welcoming to all. 

Thalia R. Goldstein, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Psychology at Pace University researching children's role play, pretend, and acting.

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